Want to improve your writing and maybe even save some money at the same time? Before you submit your text to a professional editor, go over what you’ve written and think about eliminating ten commonplace words and phrases.
I edit nonfiction and spend too much time and energy trying to find better ways to say the same thing in a way that matches the author’s style, but fiction writers aren’t off the hook. This is my personal list of words/phrases that hit me hard when I find them.
How much better than good is very good? How much older than old is very old? If you are using good to describe, say, a recipe that you especially like, you might say it’s easy but produces a professional result, or you might describe how the flavors work together. And about that old person: you might retain good and old (while tossing very) and then go on to provide details that inform readers in what ways someone or something is “very good” or “very old.” Very is a crutch—throw it away.
It is, there are, there is
These are empty expressions that I often snip out of sentences, move the verb, and find a much stronger sentence. For example, “There was scarcely a day after the two had qualified for their respective national teams that . . .” becomes “After the two had qualified for their respective national teams, scarcely a day passed when . . .” Or: “He was in bed in his San Francisco home one evening in October 1998 when there was a knock on the door” becomes “He was in bed in his San Francisco home one evening in October 1998 when someone knocked on the door.”
Little did he/she know
A single use of this phrase goes a long, long way. Anything more than that is grating, and even one use can be annoying. Authors have many ways to set suspense (including calculated use of short sentences) and provide foreshadowing (offhanded allusions), but this ought not be one of them. A friend once gave me a biography she knew I’d like because of the subject. But I literally threw the book away after about ten pages because I’d already encountered this phrase fifteen times.
A bland word that says nothing. Good reasons for using this word are all but impossible to find. If you want to say why something is interesting, have at it or simply describe it in detail and trust your readers to also find it interesting.
Unless someone is confessing to an actual crime, it’s more accurate (and kinder) to say they acknowledged doing or saying something.
If the context calls for weaseling, by all means use this word. But too often authors do not intend to lend a sense of wishy-washiness to what they are saying. Better: “the report said,” “the mayor specified,” “the analysis recommended,” and so on.
Branding/branded, especially in historical or nonbusiness contexts. “The signage system will reinforce the branding of two distinct parts of the island as tourism continues to grow.” Better: “The signage system will reinforce the distinctiveness of both parts of the island as tourism continues to grow.” Here the author is being more specific, less wordy, and avoids a buzzword.
Not all uses of we, of course. But a certain usage, which I call the “anchorperson we,” has crept into formal writing, and it does no favors for author or readers. For example: “[Country X] provides a good example of where ecommerce is heading. With this in mind, we will look in detail at how internet sales on the country’s main platforms are different from those on eBay and Amazon.” But we are not doing anything; only the author is. Better: “[Country X] provides a useful example of where ecommerce is heading, and I will describe how the country’s main platforms for internet sales are different from those of eBay and Amazon.” Besides, you are the author—you’ve put a lot of hard work and thought into writing your book or article. Why would you want to share credit with some unnamed group of other people (“we”)?
The fact that: This one’s nearly always disposable. For example: “Debilitating disorganization was the price we were paying for the fact that, as Irving had been boasting to everyone, ‘Our company doesn’t plan.’” Better: “Debilitating disorganization was the price we were paying, even as Irving boasted, ‘Our company doesn’t plan.’” Or: “Should I bring up the fact that this was my last day of assisting at the day care center?” Better: “Should I mention that this was my last day of assisting at the day care center?”
Some (followed by a number): “Some four thousand people showed up for free samples.” Some is a newspaperism (and I’m a former newspaper editor). You mean about or approximately.
Zap these words and phrases wherever and whenever you can, and the result will be tighter and more engaging writing. You’ll also find that without them you will write more precisely and vividly. And all will earn you the gratitude, if not the kudos, of your editor (no matter what type of editing you’ve requested) because not having to deal with these empty phrases means your editor can focus on more important issues—and maybe even save you a little money.