Most people don’t spend a great deal of time planning their next sentence, unless you’re a super nerd like me and have a serious obsession with lexis and language.
We have tens of thousands of words to choose from, so why would we overuse any of them? I’ve had the pleasure of working with all types of writers: the young, the veteran, the newly published, the inexperienced, and the journalist. I’ve been a writing coach, an English teacher, and an editor. Naturally, I began to notice patterns in writers’ errors and stylistic blunders.
I’ve compiled an ever-growing list of ineffective words that should be avoided like a camera on a bad hair day. Today, I’ll reveal the most common five. Keep in mind, I’m not advocating for the death of the following words. Every word has its place, but the following five terms are vague, redundant, and overused.
‘Just’ don’t do it
“Just” can either be an adjective or an adverb. It causes problems with the latter because it’s typically not a strong adverb, and it doesn’t add much value to a sentence. Actually, in many cases, it merely adds another word, which we all know isn’t practical when writing for the Web. Take the following example:
“I just don’t get it. She just doesn’t seem to like me. I thought she did, but now it’s obvious she just doesn’t. See what I mean?! She just kissed that naked pirate!”
If I were editing the previous passage, I would ax all but one of the “justs.” “Just,” as an adverb, can mean a few different things, but typically it’s defined as “barely,” “immediately or directly,” “exactly,” “very recently,” or “only.” With all of these different meanings, it’s easy to understand why the word gets used too often. In the passage above, the only effective “just” being used, in my opinion, is in the sentence, “She just kissed that naked pirate!” This “just” lets readers know that the kissing of the naked pirate occurred at that very moment, while the other “justs” provide nothing (besides extra words) for the passage.
‘Really’ no need for ‘really’
The word “really,” like “just,” has its place, but because it’s frequently used in our everyday speech, it also pops up in writing all the time. When it’s used more than once or twice, it becomes irritating and useless. I can prove my point using the next two sentences.
“Using active verbs is a really great way to improve writing.”
“Using active verbs is a great way to improve writing.”
The “really” doesn’t add any meaning to the sentence. It’s there, but it doesn’t do anything except take up space. To be “really great” and “great” essentially mean the same thing. The two example sentences mean the same thing.
Forget the “really,” and try using something else for emphasis. Really is an adverb used frequently as an intensifier. My advice is to replace “really” and the word it’s intensifying. Instead of using the phrase “really great,” a single, more powerful adjective could be used such as “excellent,” “brilliant,” or “exceptional.”
The impersonal ‘you’
I couldn’t write this blog without at least mentioning the “impersonal you.” While teaching 10th-graders to write research papers, I forbade its use. The “impersonal you,” “generic you,” or “indefinite you” refers to the word “you” when used to address an unspecified person or group of people. It’s too informal for a research paper, but in my opinion, as long as it’s used sparingly and tastefully, it’s perfectly fine for the friendly, informal setting of blogging.
I’ll use the opening line of this post as an example:
“Most people don’t spend a great deal of time planning their next sentence, unless you’re a super nerd like me and have a serious obsession with lexis and language.”
I’m addressing my readers as a single “you” but in reality (well, hopefully!) more than one person will read my post.
Also, notice that I’m careful not to assume anything about the reader. I imply that it’s likely that most people don’t spend much time contemplating their next sentence, but I also offer readers a chance to say, “Well, actually, I do spend time planning my next sentence because I am a super nerd like you!”
Inexperienced writers tend to say things like, “You don’t spend a great deal of time planning your next sentence,” or, “Sometimes, you hate writing.” Statements like this make unsafe assumptions, so it’s best to allow your readers a chance to relate to what you’re saying, without implying something that’s potentially false.
Exactly how much is ‘a lot’?
My personal pet peeve, the word combination “a lot,” causes me to involuntarily grind my teeth every time I see it. Take this sentence for example:
“A lot of the time a lot of people use a lot of bad examples.”
OK, so this sentence is exaggerated. This isn’t an authentic example of a sentence I’ve seen while editing or teaching, but I’m using it to prove my point. “Lot” and “lots” are colloquialisms, and I guarantee that they can be replaced with “much” or “most” at least 90 percent of the time. Plus, the common phrase is often “a lot of” or “a lot.” These two- and three-word combinations can be easily be replaced by a single word. Not to mention, no one really knows the true value of “a lot of” people. Is it more than three, half of a class of 30 students, or half of the population in the U.S.? Writers should always be as specific as possible, and the vague phrase “a lot” leaves
a lot of many unanswered questions.
Is this getting ‘kind of’ annoying?
If someone is only “kind of” annoyed by this point, what exactly are they if they’re not fully annoyed? Phrases like “kind of” and “sort of” are unclear and even misleading at times. Someone is either annoyed or not annoyed, and if a person is only “kind of” annoyed, he or she had better explain (meaning use a strong adjective) to describe what’s going on.
Remember, words should be carefully chosen. Don’t settle for the same mind-numbing words and phrases. Add sparkle to your content with words that express and clarify, rather than words that mystify and bore.
When you’re writing for the Web, there’s only a small window of opportunity to keep readers’ attention. Let the five words I mentioned serve as a reminder that the quality of your content is only as strong as the word choices you make.
A version of this article first appeared on ContentEqualsMoney.com.