As our lives get more and more hectic, communicating clearly has become one of the most important professional skills. Yet despite our best efforts, the wrong words can slip into our writing anywhere, any time.
Wrong words don’t just muddy our meaning and confuse our readers. They can have real financial impact. Hours spent going back and forth with a contractor or client on ‘what you really meant’, can add hundreds if not thousands to a project.
So if you’re looking to communicate as clearly as possible, here are 5 weak words to avoid, and some helpful tips for what you can use instead:
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Example: “The new website really looks fantastic.”
Why it’s a problem: The word ‘really’ is a crutch. It’s used to convey emphasis but it fails spectacularly in this. Really doesn’t tell us anything important and is inadequate as a description. It’s an example of the writing the way we speak but it just doesn’t translate on paper or screen.
There’s also the issue of considering what the word ‘real’ means.
Real is a fact. It is not imagined or supposed. It is genuine. When you take this into consideration you’ll find that using really as an intensifier often conveys more emotion than we intended.
If you are going to use this word, make sure to do so sparingly.
Thankfully, this problem is easily remedied: “The new website really looks fantastic.”
Can be changed into: “The new website looks fantastic.”
Nothing is lost by cutting ‘really’ from the sentence but simplicity and function is gained.
As Mark Twain said, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”
2. Things / Stuff
Example: “I want my new app to do a lot of things and stuff.”
Why it’s a problem: While the writer may have a perfectly clear understanding of what ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ they are referring to, the reader does not. Which can wreak havoc if you’re trying to give instructions or direction.
What things and stuff? Where things and stuff? How things and stuff? Which things and stuff? See where I’m going with this? There is too much left unsaid.
The author Kurt Vonnegut often gave this piece of advice: Pity the reader.
He didn’t mean this in a disparaging way. Rather that we shouldn’t make the reader do more work than necessary.
Let’s fix the example from above: “I want my new app to do a lot of things and stuff.”
Instead, we can spell out exactly what we want: “I want my new app to connect people who love dogs.”
3. I believe / I feel / I think
Example: “I believe the author has a great point here…”
Why it’s a problem: ‘I believe,’ ‘I feel,’ ‘I think,’ do not inspire confidence in the reader. Instead, they do the exact opposite. These words make the writer sound unsure of what they’re saying as well as forcing them to overuse pronouns. Here’s why that’s bad news:
Computer programmer James Pennebaker analyzed over 400,000 texts in his mission to see what our word choice reveals about us.
When Pennebaker analyzed military transcripts, his team could tell individuals relative ranks based entirely on patterns of speech.
What does this tell us? Our choice and use of pronouns reveals how we view ourselves and how we view our relationships with others. In short, it reveals our personality to the reader. This is fine in cases of autobiography, but most of the time it only serves to weaken your work.
The use of words like, ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ changes the focus of the sentence. Instead of the focus being on the subject, it is on the author. It’s like a big blinking neon light saying, “Hi, this is me, the author, talking. Look at me sitting here talking about my opinions! Isn’t this great?”
It’s not great. You take the reader out of the piece completely which is generally something a writer wishes to avoid, especially if you are trying to persuade the reader.
Case in point: “I believe the researcher has a great point here.”
Instead try: “The researcher has a great point here.”
This causes the power dynamics to shift. The sentence goes from sounding wishy-washy, to sounding confident. It also places the focus back where it belongs.
What we are talking about here is the difference between active and passive voice. If you don’t know the difference, here’s a quick example:
Active voice: “Sally mailed the letter.”
Here the subject (Sally) is performing the action. It is clear what action has transpired.
Passive voice: “The letter was mailed by Sally.”
In this sentence, the subject has changed (letter) and is now the thing being acted upon.
Why it’s a problem: Passive voice is most often used in scientific writing, and tends to be less engaging as it forces the reader to do more work to get to the same conclusion. Active voice allows for short, punctuated sentences that get right to the point.
**Generic Disclaimer: Passive voice does have its place, and not every form of ‘to be’ represents passive voice.
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” — Mark Twain
My sentiments exactly.
Example: “Scientists are very interested in finding out more about the duck-billed platypus.”
Why it’s a problem: The word ‘very’ does not communicate enough information. It’s been called one of the most useless words in the English language. It’s one of those penny words that writers throw in to magnify another word. The only problem is, it doesn’t do that.
How does one avoid using the word ‘very’? Start off with a more descriptive adjective from the get-go.
Instead of saying, ‘very good’ say ‘wonderful’. Remember, your reader’s time is precious. It pays to be as concise as possible.
Another solution is to cut the word ‘very’ out of the sentence completely.
Again, nothing is lost by doing this: “Scientists are interested in finding out more about the duck-billed platypus.”
There is a seemingly infinite supply of wonderful words available to writers and let’s be honest, the word ‘very’ isn’t one of them.