Three Words You Should Eliminate from Your Writing

A guest post by James Chartrand of Men with Pens

Every good copywriter will tell you that you should write concisely. Eliminate every unnecessary word. Be bold with your choice of nouns and adjectives. Choose precise words, not common ones. Cut all the fluff, the clutter and the jargon.

And if you’re a copywriter, you probably follow this advice – or think you do.

Unfortunately, several words are so common that you often don’t even realize you’re using them. These words sneak into your writing all the time, and they contribute nothing to the content.

They damage your credibility. They bring down your writing. They make your work look amateur.

If I pointed those words out to you, you’d probably shuffle your feed and shamefacedly admit they don’t need to be there. You hadn’t even noticed you’d put them in.

Those words are like condiments in your fridge. You open the door a dozen times a day and never see them. It isn’t until a friend comes over and asks why you have two-year-old mango chutney that you realize you should probably clear some of that out.

You should. Here are three words you can clear out of your writing.

Word #1: Really

No, really. Take a look where this word might show up and clunk up a sentence:

  • It’s really important that you sign up for this.
  • This is a really valuable product.
  • You have to check this out – it’s really interesting.

I’m specifically talking about instances where really is an intensifier. In grammar, an intensifier is like a modifier, only better, and its job is… well, to intensify the emotional context of words like “important” or “valuable” or “interesting.”

But an intensifier actually adds no particular contribution or value. Take it out, and the whole sentence still works just fine, thank you very much.

The problem with really is that it’s supposed to enhance the word it’s modifying and amplify its meaning. But really has become so common that it doesn’t actually make us think more of the item in question. It makes us think less of it.

Watch what happens here:

  • Sign up. It’s important.
  • This is valuable.
  • Interesting.

All those words have weight and heft when they stand on their own. But add really to them, and it sounds like you’re trying hard to convince someone that you mean it.

“This is interesting.”

“Yeah, right.”

“No, it’s really interesting.”

Unless your reader has some reason to doubt your statement of the facts, really is unnecessary – AND it gives your reader the impression that you don’t believe your own words.  Not really.

Word #2: Very

Really and very suffer from similar maladies; they’ve become so common that their original purpose has been flipped in the opposite direction.

It’s uncommon for us to say a house was big. We say it was very big.

We do this automatically, without thinking, and so much so that the word very doesn’t even register in our brains. It’s not as if we think big and by adding very we think even bigger.

We hear very big and we think big. We stay at the same level of perception, without anything being added to our mental image.

Very sweet. Very tall. Very nice. Very interesting.

It carries far more power to drop the word very and allow the word it intensified to stand alone.

The man entered the room. He was very large.

When we read this sentence, we get the impression that the man is fat. That’s usually what we mean when we say someone is very large. But when we simply say:

The man entered the room. He was large.

Now we have the impression of the man’s actual size. Maybe he’s fat, or maybe he’s broad and tall. Either way, there’s a lot of him. He is large. (And probably intimidating too!)

Word #3: Totally

Totally means ‘in total.’ As in, the sum of all. The whole. The entire shebang, completely. Like this:

Are all the boxes here? Totally.

That’s an old-fashioned version, but it still works for emotions:

Can I confide in you? Totally.

You can tell me the sum of all your confidences. Hold nothing back. I’m prepared to listen to the entire shebang of what you have to say.

The problem is that in common language (probably thanks to the explosion of Valley Girl talk in the ‘80s) totally became a placeholder word, modifying that which does not need modification.

Example: I was totally shocked.

Being shocked implies totality. You’re either shocked or you aren’t. Your ears can’t go into shock while your leg stays casual about it all. Your entire body and mind go into shock. That’s what shock means.

Totally, here, is redundant.

Here’s another example: This is a totally great price.

It’s great or it isn’t. A price is about as totaled as you can get – so the extra word serves no purpose.

Take it away. Take all three of these words – really, very, totally – away. And your copy will suddenly stand a bit taller, ring a touch prouder and come off like it was written by a pro.

Have any more unnecessary words to add to the pile? Bring them on in the comments!

About the author:

James Chartrand is a finalist in the 10 Top Blogs for Writers Contest 2011/12. Discover more great writing tips, tricks and techniques with her innovative writing course for business owners, Damn Fine Words. This game-changing course is open right now to new members. Register today and start writing words that get results for your business.[aff link]

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89 Responses to “Three Words You Should Eliminate from Your Writing”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. James,

    Very interesting read. Presents points I hadn’t considered. Really. :-) Congrats on being a WTD finalist.

  2. Emily Cook says:

    These phrases wear me out:
    “In my opinion,”
    “from my point of view,”
    “Personally,”
    “For me,”
    or worse “personally for me,”

    If not eliminated, I think they should be used sparingly! (…in my opinion)

    • I don’t blame you! They’d wear me out too… mostly because they’re all “I” statements. You know, the ones that make you roll your eyes and think, “Yeah, it’s all about you, buddy.” (Then you click away. Ha!)

  3. Taking this to heart! Thank you for the tips.

  4. Those intensifiers do the opposite in my mind’s ear, because they become noise I have to push past to get to the core of the message.

    “He was large.”

    Impressive.

    “Very” just tries too hard.

    And may I nominate “literally” to be struck from the lexicon? At least until we recover from its staggering (and nearly viral) overuse and misuse.

    • Literally is a good one to strike for sure. And @gameandpc nominated actually, so there’s another dreaded word to slice out.

      I definitely hear you on the ‘noise’ – the more succinct, concise and simple the message, the better it zooms straight to reader attention. (At least, in my experience!)

      • I was going to say literally. I, like Stacey, have lately become (I almost added “very”!) aware of it’s overuse. It’s as if people are expecting an exaggeration and want their listeners to know they’re “literally” serious. Except the problem is, what they’re saying isn’t actually literally at all!

        When I’m editing a MS, I also find a lot of extra “that.”
        Great article!

  5. Jessica says:

    Three words I’d like to see eliminated from all B2B writing: leverage (v), robust, and mission-critical.

    These words have been on buzzword bingo lists for years. But they’ve become so common that I see them sneaking into company website copy and white papers all the time now. It’s horrifying, I tell you. Just horrifying. (Ha ha. Sort of.)

    Thanks for a nice, quick read!

  6. This was a great article, and you’re right. Eliminate those three word and you’ll sound (much) more professional. (another one of those words)

    Love this.

  7. Prof KRG says:

    I’m going with “that.” It’s rarely needed, but commonly used.

    Great post!

    • You reminded me of another pet peeve: thing.

      Thing and things have completely inundated our language – but what does it even mean? “I have lots of things.” WHAT things? Define things! “When you find a thing like that, you hang onto it.” A thing like WHAT?

      Using thing usually means, “Damn. I just can’t think of the right word to use. Must be ‘thing’.” Uh-huh…

  8. I’d like to nominate these also: awesome, dude, epic. My generation begat the first two, and I apologize on behalf of all of us who thought we were cool then . . . .

  9. Tim Bordeaux says:

    I just think “just” should just be eliminated as well. Just sayin’.

  10. Jim Devitt says:

    Adverbs Kill …

  11. this was interesting.you were right that those words were unnecessary.

  12. ESQ says:

    The problem is really attempting to be a very persuasive writer without totally earning it.

  13. Nice of you to point the words out. I just checked my 120k-word manuscript and found only a ‘very’, zero ‘really’ and zero ‘totally’. My spoken English, on the other hand, is marred by zillions of those words.

  14. Joe Smith says:

    “Adverbs kill…”
    People don’t kill people, adverbs do. Patiently!

    Great posting. No, really. A very good one. Totally!

  15. I realised a while ago that I overuse / use (same thing?) the word “really” and have been trying to cull it from my writing ever since. I’ll keep an eye out for my use of ‘very’ and ‘totally”.

    Another sneaky word I’m trying to eliminate from my own writing is “just”.

    • You and Tim up above need to talk, Dave. ;)

    • I too am a victim of the “Just” virus.

      I didn’t have much from the others, but “just” had about 25 instances. Epic fail.
      And I can’t even relate the horrors of my first draft’s adverb infestation… *shudder*

    • I had the “just” virus, and it was terrible. Sometimes I meant “simply” but didn’t use that word; which, given it’s a candidate for The List too, probably means I wouldn’t have made things better. Now I try to restructure the whole sentence to avoid “just” and “simply” altogether.

      Thanks, James; a thoughtful piece…

  16. I think you wrote this for me. The only problem is we’ve never met.

    I use the word REALLY like I’m married to it.

    I’ve always wondered if anyone cared about that word. TOTALLY – I get. VERY was a nasty word even in high school English class. I honestly don’t know how REALLY made it into my vocab so prolifically.

  17. doug_eike says:

    I agree with the suggestion of eliminating these three words from one’s writing. Thanks for the tips!

  18. Great post and something I need to work on. Do you know how hard it was for me to not say “something I really need to work on” right there???

  19. E. Newmeyer says:

    I agree, however . . . there are times when these words come in handy when writing dialogue. Characters need to sound natural, so if WE use those horrid words in our everyday conversations, it makes sense that our characters would as well. Within reason, of course. BTW, I immediately searched for the word “very” and pitched nearly all of them. Now to eradicate the word “just”.

  20. Mansi says:

    Hi James,

    Nice post. You might want to include ‘basically’ to the list.

  21. I get the ‘really’ and ‘very’ suggestions, but to do people really use ‘totally’ ever? The only instance I see ‘totally’ being used is by a teenage girl in a text message.

  22. So true, although now I feel the need to go back through all of our blog posts to look for these words. Thanks! This really was a very good post, totally! Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  23. Another word to eliminate: “personally.” I get really irritated when people write that they “personally believe” something. Or their “personal favourite it…” That’s just redundant! Tell us what you believe. Or what your favourite is. You don’t need to add the word personally!

  24. Michi says:

    That, dude, was really very totally epic!

    English isn’t my first language, but I talk and write English every day.
    One word I don’t like is when you start a sentence with “and”. AND in all honesty, I have been guilty of it myself. In Swedish, my native language, it REALLY and TOTALLY sucks to start a sentence in that way.

    Your article urges me to re-read my own stories/posts and put on the critical eye and edit!
    Thank you!

    • Ahhhh… Now that one, I plead guilty to. And often. (See?)

      Starting sentences with ‘And’ is very common in the copywriting world – one of those ‘write like you speak’ techniques that people actually seem to like.

  25. Jeff Goins says:

    Totally love it. I really think this is great. Very helpful. ;)

    Seriously, so good.

    Other weak words, rather phrases, are those that lack authority:

    -”I think.”
    -”I believe.”
    -”In my opinion.”

    Especially if you’re writing persuasive or sales copy, these phrases will kill your writing.

    • Hm… ‘I believe’ is actually very powerful in persuasive copy, because it tells people WHY they should pay attention and what you stand for. In those cases, they find themselves matching their own personal beliefs to the company’s beliefs… and then they click for the sale.

      Simon Sinek’s TED video is a great example of how this works.

      (‘In my opinion’ can definitely go, though – it sounds so pretentious!)

  26. Eleanor says:

    I once read that 50% of the uses of the word “that” are unnecessary.

    Ahem.

  27. Jody Maurer says:

    That is really very interesting.
    Oh, I totally see what you mean.

  28. Chris Roberts says:

    This is what passes for an article. Really? James Chartrand apparently doesn’t know the use of really as a stand alone question. File this piece under masturbatory semantics, the bored typing of keys to pass an hour’s time.

    Chris Roberts

    • Mary Jaksch says:

      Dear Chris, this blog is for writers by writers. When posting a comment, please keep your language civil and friendly. Comments like yours don’t have a place here.

    • Well, Chris, I have to pass the time somehow… Have a nice day!

    • Kyla says:

      Although a few small addenda could have been added to improve the piece, I personally think this was a thorough article on the subject, especially when you consider the small space it took up. He wasn’t writing a book, or a magazine article. This is a blog post! He couldn’t cover everything.

      I hope you’re having a great day, and happy writing!

  29. Jyoti Pandey says:

    Very Nice – Really! Totally Impressed. ;)

    Good read. Take out the clutter and and we have a powerful message. An addition to the list: ” honestly speaking” . Who would claim that they don’t speak honestly?

    Thanks!

    • Mary Jaksch says:

      Ha, ha! Nice one, Jyoti!

      As to ‘honestly speaking’ …

      ‘Honestly speaking’ seems a different kind of animal, compared with ‘totally’ or ‘really’. Those two expressions are hyperbole, but ‘honestly speaking’ is more like a ‘meta phrase’, that is, someone is writing about writing – before they actually do it.

      What do you think?

    • This is a good example of online trending in the way of beliefs… so many people feel they’ve been taken for a ride that now they distrust almost everyone, and so they need a reinforcer to show that someone is speaking honestly, truthfully and ethically.

      But as the old adage goes, I feel that if you have to point it out… well. That says more than anything, eh?

  30. This article was really very interesting, I totally see your point.

    Just kidding, this speaks volumes to me as I find these words grating when I read them. A world without them would be a better place, well done.

  31. Serogole a Serogole Montjane says:

    Hello James

    Really? Well I never! Very nice? I really like. Honestly, with due respect, can I be very frank? And this kind of language, in my opinion, is kind of like uncalled for. Know what I mean (know what I am saying), You know? Forgive me for saying this but…OK, enough said.

    E. Newmeyer, thank you for clarifying the point about authenticity (real errors) in dialogue; James is convincing, I would have included dialogue in my culling.

    I share Michi’s plight (I am South African, we have 11 official languages).

    Jennifer Brown Banks, I love your work. Keep shining.

    James, well done, your article is very useful (I am adding it to my tool box).

    Thank you, to all those who write on writing, for giving us (want to be writers), the courage and tools to write.

  32. Love this post–thank you James! One of my writing resolutions this year is to tighten my copy and fade the words right off my delete key. :)

  33. Elizabeth says:

    Is anyone else just as irritated by the misplacement of the adverb totally? As in this example of a local college crowd — totally awesome. Great post BTW!

  34. This is a useful discussion.
    My pet hate is,’That is very unique” or ‘That is so unique”.
    It’s either unique or it isn’t.
    Also… ‘I’m bored of it’ instead of ‘I’m bored with it’.
    You’ve all made me review my writing skills this morning. Thank you!

  35. Maddy says:

    That was a great reminder. Think I’ve cracked ‘very,’ but I’m still guilty of ‘really.’ I think ‘totally’ is an Americanism so I’ve escaped that one – maybe I should adopt it to sound more authentic?

  36. Br says:

    James nice points but another addition is “even” ……look at your text.

  37. indusww says:

    interesting post and noted the three words. I personally include one more word to my list -’ just.’

  38. Tom Freeman says:

    Hi James. I agree that unintense intensifiers like these are overused.

    “But an intensifier actually adds no particular contribution or value. Take it out, and the whole sentence still works just fine, thank you very much.”

    “Actually”? “Particular”? “Whole”? “Just”? They’re such sneaky litle things it’s hard to avoid them. (But the “very much” works here, because the “thank you” is tongue-in-cheek.)

    I know I use these words all the time. They take a hell of an effort to catch!

  39. Great post! I think I might be guilty as charged- off to check my WIP…

  40. 4rkain3 says:

    You mustn’t forget the worst one of them all!

    “Said” is one of the best known words for being overused. Looking it up in my thesaurus (look up “say”), I find… too many synonyms…

    • Kyla says:

      Yes, but I thought using anything other than said for dialogue was a HUGE no-no. It gets really tiring when you read something like this:

      “He’s a bore!” Becky laughed.

      “I know. Does he really think anyone cares about the special mating habits of Ethiopian ants?” Jesse queried.

      “Or how about a list of all the types of grasses that are known to grow in the wilds of Kenya?” Becky joked.

      “What a freak!” Jesse exclaimed.

      See how it sounds a little awkward? Said maybe overused, but it’s for one heck of a good reason. In fact, most editors think you should NEVER replace said with another word and rarely modify it with an adverb. I don’t completely agree with this (I really like to say asked instead of said when a character in my novel says nothing but one question, or just a series of questions), but it is a commonly held opinion.

      Just thought I might add that! Hope you don’t mind, and that you have a great day! Happy writing!

  41. Thanks for the tip, James. I think I usually avoid those three, but overuse ‘usually’ and ‘a bit’ a bit. Also, I can’t help starting sentences with ‘also’. Any advice?

  42. Andy says:

    oops.! I was using these intensifiers too much. I will try not to use them. Thanks for the tip.

  43. Kyla says:

    I found it funny that while telling us to remove intensifiers from our writing, you used one yourself: “Take it out, and the whole sentence still works just fine, thank you very much.” (Word #1: Really Section)

    Only if you remove very…it doesn’t sound right. Who says thank you much? Perhaps you should add a small addendum that states it isn’t always best to remove these words from your writing. Just when such removal is reasonably applicable in a given situation. Although excessive use should be cautioned against, of course.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to be rude. I have a strong ironic tinge to my humor, and you tickled my funny bone with that one. I hope you don’t mind that I don’t completely agree with you. Intensifiers may not intensify the way we want them to anymore, but sometimes they shouldn’t be removed. That’s just my opinion, which probably isn’t worth much, but there you have it. Have a great day, thanks for taking the time to write this article, and happy writing!

  44. June Harris says:

    James a ‘must read’ for all. Actually, we can have a long list of such words. I find many people use the term ‘highly impossible,’ when they mean ‘impossible.’

  45. James, just wanted you to know that I linked back to your article in a post I wrote on the same topic. It’s a post I’ve been wanting to write myself, and you pushed me to it. So thanks! I (really) enjoyed this article! (http://breathinginthewind.blogspot.com/2012/01/polishing-your-prose-part-one-what-why.html)

  46. Ester says:

    I was *very* pleased with your *totally* awesome blogpost. The advice *really* made my blogposts a lot cleaner.

    Regards,

    Ester