Sneaky Worthless Words and How to Kill Them
When we write, we must do the hard work of conveying meaning in a way that is interesting and easy to read. That means knowing when to delete worthless words. We can’t leave it up to readers to wade through our muck. They won’t. With precious little time and even less of an attention span, they’ll move on and find something else they like.
As an editor, I see several words and phrases pop up again and again in writing. Many are so sneaky, I find them in my own first drafts. These words and phrases are unnecessary. They add no value to your writing and clutter your work. Always kill off worthless words. If you need to know why you should relegate these worthless words to the litter bin, continue reading.
Shorter is better, particularly online, and writing concisely always helps propel the reader forward. So much bad copy is online these days. Readers are relieved when they read smooth flowing text that easily conveys meaning. Let that text be yours by omitting the worthless words listed here.
One way to determine if a word is worthless is to read the sentence out loud without it. If it still makes sense, kill off the useless words. You will find that it isn’t always necessary to delete all the words suggested below carte blanche. We must make judgment calls on a case-by-case basis.
The idea is for you to notice these words in your writing so that you will delete them every chance you get.
“That” is such an insidious little word, you won’t even notice it until you do. Once you know about “that,” it becomes nearly impossible to let that little word live in your copy again. Occasionally, however, you’ll want to leave it in, just as I did in the previous sentence.
In the sentence below, “that” serves a purpose: to connect two thoughts. If we delete “that,” it becomes necessary to note its absence with a comma.
The sentence was encumbered by so many words that it practically limped across the page.
The sentence was encumbered by so many words, it practically limped across the page.
Or, if you are writing using an active voice like I hope you are, you could change it by writing:
Encumbered by so many words, the sentence limped across the page.
But enough of that. Many other times, “that’ is useless clutter.
The consensus is that the word is generally worthless.
The consensus is the word is generally worthless.
Read it out loud and use your judgment. It is not a crime to leave “that” in even when you shouldn’t. Leaving it in can help with clarity. You’ll find style guides that recommend its use for just such a purpose. When highly in doubt, leave “that” in your sentence. A majority of the time, however, “that” can and should be deleted, particularly when it pops up several times in a single sentence.
BONUS TIP: Remember to always change “that” to “who” when referring to people and pets with names.
IN ORDER TO
The college student filled his essay with unnecessary words in order to meet the 10-page requirement.
The college student filled his essay with unnecessary words to meet the 10-page requirement.
“In order to” was invented by college students trying to fulfill a page count requirement on academic papers. You can almost always take out “in order” without losing meaning. Don’t let “in order to” slip past you at the beginning of a sentence, either.
In order to sneak past you, the phrase cloaks itself with an invisibility blanket at the beginning of the sentence.
It’s a feeble attempt by a stuffy sounding phrase trying to make itself relevant. You may still delete “in order,” or simply rearrange the sentence and go about your day.
The phrase cloaks itself with an invisibility blanket at the beginning of the sentence to sneak past you.
Don’t clutter your writing with worthless words.
Deleting “in fact” is not a requirement. It is only a preference, but it is a good one. “In fact” tries to be convincing. It shows up in a sentence to demand authority. It might have worked in 1842, but it is far too tired now to do the job. Readers skim past it without registering its presence or believing its puffery.
The words try to be convincing but, in fact, readers skim over them.
The words try to be convincing, but readers skim over them.
“Reason why” is a huge pet peeve of mine. I am appalled by how many times I see it in use, and in high-quality publications to boot.
14 Reasons Why People Should Heed This Post
In this case, “reasons” and “why” are redundant, redundant, redundant. Tsk, tsk. I would think editors would know better, though it appears many don’t.
14 Reasons People Should Heed My Advice, or
Why People Should Heed My Advice
No need to get all repetitive about it, especially in headlines where space is at a premium. With people’s attention spans as short as they are, do you really want to use two words where one does the job?
“Of them” reminds me of a quaint English couple living out their golden years in the countryside. They’re friendly and everybody likes them, but their working years are behind them. They are too slow to keep up with today’s lightning fast online world.
Some words stand the test of time, but many of them weigh a sentence down.
Some words stand the test of time, but many weigh a sentence down.
Really is the weakest of adverbs. Every time you see the word really, you are missing out on an opportunity to describe something better.
The building is really tall. The dog is really friendly. The word is really useless.
The building is 80-stories tall. The friendly dog sat in my lap. The word “really” is so useless, it should marry “that” and retire to the village with “of them.”
There you go. You’ve got some nice visuals instead of the bland word “really.” Nothing is lost by removing “really” except useless clutter, and much is gained when you add more descriptive language in its place.