Writing is a combination of art and craft. The art comes from much reading, talking, thinking, dreaming, and writing. The craft is primarily technique. Some techniques are complex, but a few are very simple and will instantly strengthen your writing. In many cases, however, strengthening writing simply means avoiding those things that weaken it.
We have identified 10 words that nearly always weaken writing. In no particular order, they are as follows.
1. Really: “Avoiding this word is a really great idea.”
Reason: A really great idea is the same as a great idea. If you need to emphasize something, such as the “greatness” of an idea, use a single word that means what you are trying to say, e.g., “Avoiding this word is an excellent idea.”
2. You: “Sometimes, you feel like writing is too hard.”
Reason: I never feel this way, so this statement is not true. The writer probably means “I” or “some writers,” e.g., “Sometimes, I feel like writing is too hard.” “You” should only be used when you are actually writing to, and about, the reader, not when making general statements.
3. Feel: “I feel the government should stop people from writing poorly.”
Reason: Which emotion is being “felt”? What is the writer touching and, therefore, feeling? Usually, the writer means “believe” or “think.” “Feel” is also used by authors to describe a character’s emotions, as in “He felt despondent.” Instead, the writer should show the emotions through the character’s words and actions.
4. Think: “I think the government should stop people from writing poorly.”
Reason: If you write an opinion, the reader understands that you also think it. Just say what it is you think, e.g., “The government should stop people from writing poorly.”
5. As: “As you write this word, poke out your eyes. It’s weak as it can cause confusion.”
Reason: A person usually cannot do two actions simultaneously, so “as” doesn’t make sense in the first sentence. It could be rewritten, “Write this word, then poke out your eyes.” In the second sentence, the writer should use “because.” Until reading the rest of the sentence, the reader doesn’t know if “as” means two actions are occurring simultaneously or means “because.”
6. A lot: “A lot of writing could be made better.”
Reason: How much is “a lot”? 100 documents? 50% of everything I have written? 1% of one million books? The term “a lot” is meaningless without the context, but if you give the context, you don’t need the term “a lot.” Also, this is highly subjective. “A lot” to one person may seem like “some” to another.
7. Sort of/Kind of: “Using these words is sort of annoying to the reader.”
Reason: If using these words is only sort of annoying, you haven’t told the reader exactly what it is. If it is annoying, say so: “Writing this way annoys the reader.” If it is not annoying, tell the reader exactly what it is, e.g., “Using these words bothers readers.” Use words that mean what you are trying to say, and give the reader exact descriptions. This also applies to “kind of.”
8. Like: “Using these words is like baking with spoiled milk.”
Reason: If this is like something, then it is NOT that thing. Giving accurate descriptions and using correct verbs will reduce your need to use “like,” e.g., “These words spoil your writing.” A good simile can enhance your writing, but using too many makes writing tedious, so try to think of a different way to express your ideas.
9. Just: “Some people are just persnickety about writing. It’s just the way they write.”
Reason: The word “just” doesn’t add any real value to these sentences. Leaving them out results in the same meanings and makes the sentences much tighter and more direct: “Some people are persnickety about writing. It’s the way they write.” Doesn’t that just sound better?
10. Used to: “He used to write like this when he started writing.”
Reason: Using fewer words to express an idea is almost always a good idea, so “used to write” can be written “wrote,” as in, “He wrote like this when he started writing.” The problem is that “used to write” and “when he started writing” both express events in the past, which is redundant. In nearly every case, “used to . . .” can be replaced with a past tense verb.
The sample sentences demonstrate poor uses of these words, but you will find good uses, too. In fact, some of them are perfectly fine in some contexts or when used in particular ways. Your level of formality, purpose, voice, and audience will determine whether or not to use these words. If you’re not sure whether or not to use them in a particular sentence, our advice is to avoid them.
Precise Edit editors keep a sharp eye out for these troublesome and confusing words. We evaluate their use and, in most cases, find a way to revise the sentences so we don’t use them. The result is stronger writing that more clearly and more professionally communicates the author’s ideas.