Wednesday, November 23, 2016

14 Words That Are Hurting Your Writing

By Melissa Allen

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: It's always handy to have a list of common trouble words that muck up our writing, especially while editing. Please help me welcome Melissa Allen to the podium today to share her list of words to avoid in your writing.

Melissa is a creative writer and an English language tutor. She is also studying programming and digital marketing features. In her free time she writes guest articles.

Take it away Melissa...

Writing well is a matter of what you don't write, just as much as which words you end up keeping. Clarity is essential to writing success, as readers don't have time to decipher rarely used phrases or interpret poorly constructed sentences. Any writer who’s willing to remove the fat from their writing will quickly earn the respect of their audience.

Unneeded Modifiers

Truly, actually, really, and very: Many writers use modifiers to enhance the meaning of a word, but in reality, these extra words don't help convey meaning. Instead, they introduce a common problem known as "wordiness." What's the difference between being "really slow" and "slow?" Sentences usually read better when you remove these words.

Unclear Antecedents

This: When you start a new sentence with the word "this," you refer to the subject mentioned in the last sentence (called an unclear antecedent). Someone reading the sentence won't immediately understand what the pronoun is referencing, which can cause confusion. Instead, they might have to stop reading to refer to the first sentence, which interrupts the natural flow of the story. If you start a sentence with this, add the subject so there's no confusion about what you mean.

Weak Modifiers 

Rather, quite, somehow, and somewhat: Weak modifiers dilute meaning instead of enhancing it. Something that is "somewhat lousy" is probably "lousy" when you get right down to it. A day that is "somewhat warm" is likely more warm than cold. Writers who cut these empty words from their writing deliver a clear message that's easy for everyone to understand.

It: Sentences that use the word "it" to describe something are often ambiguous about what it means. Instead of using the pronoun, be specific. If "it" refers to a "pricey sports car," spell it out so readers aren't left wondering what you mean.

Can: There are times when using the word "can" is permissible and preferable. However, for the most part, adding the word weakens your meaning significantly. If you say something "can" help, does it help or not? This transitive verb turns sentences from having likely outcomes to dealing with "possibilities." If you're writing about something where the "possibility" is all that exists, use "can."

Almost, seemed, and slightly: These three words are destined for the cutting room floor of any hardcore wordsmith. Something that is "slightly worn" could just as easily be "worn." Seemed is an interesting word. If this verb is used to indicate the impression of how someone feels, it's right. However, if it's used instead of a clearer description, it's a lazy way of writing. You'll need to decide if you're using the verb in the way it was intended. If not, cut it out and give a straightforward account of the facts instead.

These fourteen words are potential pitfalls for writers. When used well they can work just fine, but when used incorrectly, they fill your writing with fluff.

What words do you avoid in your writing? 


  1. Some of these words aren't on other lists. Much appreciated.

  2. I have a long list of words to avoid, and there were several here I will need to add. Thanks!

  3. Good post. Thanks. I will be linking to this on my blog.

  4. To be fair, the weak modifiers, particularly those in the first paragraph, are frequently used for humorous ends. Understatement features them prominently. J. K. Rowling is one writer who uses them. I believe they're also featured in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel.

  5. Thanks for this! Adding to my list. :)

  6. I have a love-hate relationship with weak modifiers. I used to cut them from my writing because my inner editor was definitely unhappy. But sometimes these words... just work. It's important to learn how to use them for the needed undertone.

  7. I love editing my writing. Looking for words to get rid of is one of things I do before I view my edit as finished.I tend to use old, that and it a lot.