Editor’s note: We are re-running the top stories of 2020 as part of our year-end countdown.
Winnowing out wasteful words might be an editor’s most sacred task.
Whether you call them “dead wood,” “filler,” “fluff” or “clutter,” they’re the junk you almost never need in a sentence. These “couch potato words” occupy space, trip tongues and take readers down a long, winding path when a short, straight one would do.
Whenever you edit copy, feel free to discard these bits of grammatical gunk and literary lint.
Writers often use “different” to indicate variety, but it’s not always necessary. Consider these examples:
- We have many different types of soup. → We have many types of soup.
- Each waiter serves a different segment of the restaurant. → Each waiter serves a segment of the restaurant.
- You have several different options for dinner. → You have options for dinner.
In the sentences above, “types,” “segment” and “options” each imply difference, which makes “different” unnecessary. Removing “different” tightens up each sentence, and it prevents redundancy.
“That” rolls off the tongue when you speak, but it clutters your written sentences. Editing tip: CTRL+F your document for “that,” and cut it anywhere you can without convoluting your prose. Read these sentences aloud:
- Can you believe that she doesn’t want to come with us? → Can you believe she doesn’t want to come with us?
- I know that you don’t want this. → I know you don’t want this.
- She decided that she’d go after all. → She decided she’d go after all.
It feels necessary, I know. You feel like you have to say, “I currently work at Acme Company,” but you don’t. “I work at Acme Company” means the same thing.
In rare cases, “currently” may help clarify what is now versus another time—but most of the time, a simple present-tense verb does the trick.
- She’s currently dating Taylor, but she was married to Jamie before. → She’s dating Taylor, but she was married to Jamie before.
- I’m currently between jobs. → I’m between jobs.
- Currently, you have two options for student loans. → You have two options for student loans.
4. Certain, specific or particular
Cutting these words will strengthen a sentence, but replacing them with a more precise modifier will do even better.
- A specific location → a location → a location to be named by your instructor
- A certain amount → an amount→ a large amount
- Your particular problems → your problems → your unusual problems
5. Very, really, totally (any emphasizing adverb)
Instead of adding a boring adverb to emphasize the greatness of an adjective or verb—such as “really big” or “greatly appreciate”—use a stronger adjective or verb on its own.
Here are a few examples and alternatives:
- Very big → Huge, gigantic, enormous, prodigious
- Really want → desire, crave, covet, yearn for
- Extremely tall → giant, towering, soaring, altitudinous
- Highly likely → probable, feasible, expected, anticipated
- Totally surprised → astonished, dumbfounded, flabbergasted, nonplussed
- Greatly appreciated → applauded, relished, treasured, extolled
- Truly believe → affirm, conclude, suppose, insist
Over to you, readers. Which words do you send straight to the chopping block? Leave your recommendations in the comments, please.
A version of this article was originally published by Notes Newsletter.