Sometimes even good writers need a reminder
While watching a recording of a live event for the design industry yesterday, one of the speakers surprised me when she mentioned how she became a stronger writer by eliminating one word from her communications.
As soon as she mentioned the word (I'll tell you what it is in a minute), another four or five words popped into my mind, and I knew I had note them, and then share them here with you.
But I also want to add a word of caution, because there are times when you WILL need to use these words. They exist for a reason.
The point is to be aware of the words, to evaluate how you use them, and then to delete them when they add bulk but not meaning.
Your desire, always, must be to communicate your message as clearly and concisely as possible. If you need one of these forbidden words to make a point clear, use it! As with all rules, these rules were made to be broken as needed.
This is the word the speaker mentioned. She's right. The word "just," in many instances, weakens or undercuts whatever you're saying.
- If she'd just get her act together....
- As if getting her act together would be easy to do.
- Just do it this way....
- Can you hear the snobbish, authoritative tone the word "just" adds to the sentence?
- It's just another program I offer....
- Can you hear the writer discounting her program, as if there's nothing special about it?
BUT—don't cut "just" from your writing everywhere; sometimes you need the word there for the sentence to say what you mean.
For instance, in each of those example sentences, you could be meaning that getting her act together was easy, or you're feeling snobbish and authoritative, or you're trying to blow by the fact that you have another program because you have something more important to say.
In formal and professional writing (such as marketing writing), I eliminate the word "very" whenever I see it. Of course it didn't always used to be that way; I had no idea how offensive the word "very" was to writers and "those in the know" until I read this quote by Mark Twain.
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.
Hmmm. Read that quote carefully. Notice how Mark Twain—the famous writer!—used the word "just," which I just told you to eliminate?!
And notice how I just used the word "just" (twice now!), even though I said the word is a no-no?!
That's because I'm using the word "just" as a marker of time, to let the reader (you) know that what I'm talking about happened just moments ago.
Back to the word we're talking about—"very." I do tend to eliminate most instances of it, especially in formal or professional writing (think school papers, web content, trade articles, that sort of thing) when using it adds no meaning.
- Her course was very popular among coaches.
- Instead of very popular, how about in high demand?
- I'm very excited to tell you about this.
- What is "very excited" as compared to "excited"? Maybe ... "bouncing out of my chair"?
- The very least you can do....
- If something is the "least," then there is nothing lesser; there can be no "very" least.
In many ways, "believe" is a fine word. The usage you must be careful about is when it's paired with the word "I"—"I believe." In most cases, your writing will be stronger by eliminating the phrase.
- I believe you'll be much better off if....
- The phrase "I believe" adds little in this instance; if anything, using "I believe" is as if you're trying to get off the hook, or be less responsible, for the advice you're offering.
- I believe this is the best program on the market for....
- Same thing; is it the best program on the market, or what?
- I believe I heard her say that before....
- Did you hear her say it, or not? And if you're not sure, how about saying so: "She may have said that before...."
As with the word "believe," pay attention to the word "think" when you see it paired with "I"—"I think." In my experience, I've almost always been able to eliminate the phrase "I think" when it appears in my writing.
- I think you should....
- Notice how much stronger the statement is when you remove "I think." What's left is "You should," a stronger, more powerful recommendation; although depending on context, you may also be able to eliminate the "you should" as well ... but that's a topic for another post.
- Yes, I think that's the right amount.
- Is it or is it not the right amount? If you're unsure, you're better off saying so.
- I think people involved in politics must....
- I bet you're getting it now; see how much stronger the sentence is without the phrase "I think"?
I'm not sure how or why it happens, but if the word "that" were an infectious disease, it would have wiped out a good portion of writing by now.
And as with any word you're thinking of axing, eliminate "that" judiciously. Sometimes it fits, sometimes it simply adds bulk.
- She told me that she was going to the store.
- Keep/eliminate? My editorial spidey sense says... author's prerogative. When you read the sentence sans "that" aloud, it still makes makes sense. When reading, I'm not as comfortable without the word "that" because it acts as a conjunction, and removing it leaves two pronouns next to each other: She told me she....
- In my program, you'll learn that there are five words to eliminate.
- Remove the word "that" with no undue stress on the reader, and—BONUS!—notice how you can also remove "there are" without undue stress. Again, a topic for another article....
- I've been wondering if we should remove that from our lesson.
- Curveball! Removing the word "that" without thinking about it would screw up the meaning in the sentence because, in this case, the word "that" is being used as a pronoun; it's standing in for a noun.
Take heart if you're new at writing; these issues plague ALL writers
If you're not a writer, you may have read this post with a sinking feeling, thinking, "Oh my gosh, I'm never going to be a writer! I can't remember all these rules!"
Please, let me set your heart at ease. If I looked, I doubt I'd find any writer whose work could not use a little cleanup. Mine included.
Besides, I don't want to scare you away from writing. If you put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, you are ALREADY a writer!
Writing is the act of transmitting your thoughts and ideas to your readers. EDITING is the act of reviewing that transmission with an eye towards tightening, cleaning, clarifying, and enhancing meaning.
If you worry about using filler words in your content too often, look for them before you hit PUBLISH:
- Open your content in a word processor with search/find capabilities (Google Docs, Word).
- Search for "just," and eliminate every instance where the word adds bulk but not meaning.
- Repeat the process with the other words—very, believe, think, that.
Try it! You'll quickly see how much more powerful your writing can be, which is good for you, your readers, and the world at large.