Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Five Weak Words that Make Your Writing Less Effective

Bonus: For more tips on becoming a stronger writer delivered directly to your inbox for free, click here.

I can’t stand frail, weak writing. And neither can you. You know when you’ve read content that compels you to do something that matters and when something bores you to tears. You may just not know exactly why.

And you need to be able to identify those words that weaken your writing so that you can stamp them out of your vocabulary.

Weak Words in Writing

Photo credit: Jon Clegg (Creative Commons)

Words are the lifeblood of your writing. They’re what you use to build credibility or diminish it.

Words matter. They’re what make your arguments more compelling, your prose stronger, and your craft more captivating.

Untrained writers can be careless with their words. It takes discipline to use these tools well. Here are five lazy words that make your writing weaker and how to fix them:

“Stuff”

Stuff is a lazy word. Only use it sparingly when you’re intentionally trying to be informal.

Instead, use a more descriptive noun.

“Things”

Things is another lazy word. People often overuse it. While not always inappropriate, it also should be used on rare occasions.

Things is nondescript and can often be replaced with much better nouns, such as “reasons” or “elements” or “issues” and so on…

“Got”

Got is a terrible verb. It means “obtaining something” or can also be used as a helping verb like have. More often than not, got can usually go away.

Instead of saying “I got up”, say “I woke up.”

Instead of saying, “I got a baseball”, say, “I have a baseball” or “I found a baseball.”

Not only is got a lazy word; it is also vague. In the last sentence does “got” mean “found” or “have”?

“Was/Is/Are/Am”

Often people will say something like, “I was there” or “We were at the party.”

In these cases, the writers are using different versions of the verb to be when they could be employing better action words.

For example, you could instead say, “I stood silently in the kitchen” or “My wife and I arrived late to the party.”

“Went”

Went is like are. There are a hundred other verbs that you could exchange for went.

Instead of saying, “I went to the store,” you could say, “I walked to the store” or, “I drove my car to buy some groceries at the store.”

Went is a lame word — vague, boring, lackluster.

As are am, got, stuff, and things. Here are a few more words and phrases to use sparingly:

  • very
  • all
  • important
  • used to
  • every
  • never
  • feel
  • seem
  • think
  • often
  • almost
  • big
  • small
  • have got
  • just

Stop using them in your writing.

Or at very least, think twice before whipping out a simplistic, overused word like are.

Words lose their meaning when we use them carelessly. Take your time, carefully considering how you will utilize the best words possible.

When you write, your copy wields great potential. Don’t squander it.

Bonus: For more tips on becoming a stronger writer delivered directly to your inbox for free, click here.

What are some other weak words that make your writing less effective? I’m sure I didn’t cover them all. Share your thoughts in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I help people tell better stories and make a difference in the world. My family and I live outside of Nashville, TN. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. To get updates and free stuff, join my newsletter.

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  • LaTonya Young

    This is useful material to know in my writing. I was overly using a lot of these words.

  • Rachel Marsden

    My naughty words are: ‘also’, ‘though’ and ‘a lot’. When I edit I use the search function to chase these out.

  • http://handycrowd.com/ Ian Anderson

    Shoot, I use stuff to describe a lot of erm…..stuff in my DIY book!

    Stephen King said in his book, ‘on writing’ that we shouldn’t use words that end in ‘ly’, as your prose should be good enough to indicate mood without resorting to a multitude of adverbs.

    New to the blog so ‘Hi Jeff!’
    Ian

  • Ann Daniel

    Good morning,

    First I’d like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to comment about Words to cut from your writing:

    “Just” is a filler word that weakens your writing and removing it rarely affects.

    “Really” its an example for writing by the way you talk, think of
    the difference between saying “the rock is hard” and “the rock
    is really hard”

    “Very” its the same as “really”

    “perhaps/maybe” you don’t want the readers feel that you are not sure of what you are saying

    “quite” Sometimes the word adds meaning; sometimes it’s fluff

    “Amazing” it is used to describe surprise or great
    wonder but some writers often uses this word that the meaning gets lost.

    Sincerely,

    Ann Daniel

  • jen

    ‘Got up’ and ‘woke up’ aren’t interchangeable for me (in England). I often wake up some time before actually getting up :) What’s wrong with ‘got up?’ Does it sound to colloquial or informal?

  • Sonya Grady

    wondered…she wondered, he wondered. We know they’re thinking, just chop off the useless verb. Instead of, “He wondered where they went.” Use, “Where did they go?”

    • F. Armsytong Green

      Exactly. The difference is that in the first instance the narrator distances himself but in the second, he is tight in the character’s mind. In the first we are told something; in the second, we identify with the character, we are the character. The ability of fiction to get into the mind makes fiction the highest art form.

  • Michelle Hutchinson

    Another word I edit out of a lot of writing is “quite.” Novices tend to use that almost as much as “very.”

  • http://www.warrenbaldwin.blogspot.com/ Warren Baldwin

    The stuff you wrote about here got me to thinking about things in a fresh way. Good post.

  • dedee

    From the author:
    “And you need to be able to identify those words that weaken your writing so that you can stamp them out of your vocabulary.”

    Please note the extraneous — second — use of the word “that” in the original author’s post.
    That use of the word THAT should be added to the list.

  • Tracy Shroyer

    Not sure why, but I found myself using, “So, …” to start sentences. Put a stop to that recently when I heard something on TV about how conversations should not start out with that, as it is more of a filler. I also remember having a conversation with a VP where I said, “I think…” then tried to make a definitive statement. He responded, “Do you think, or do you know?” I am cautious of using those types of words – think, might, etc. ever since.

    • F. Armsytong Green

      Excellent.

  • Melody H. Mitchell

    I really appreciate this guide, but as a new writer – I’ve noticed considering these words is causing me to hesitate in my writing whether I would use the words or not (and I probably use plenty). I must accept that because I’m truly (yes…an ly word…) new to this I need to simply make myself write, no matter if it is weak. Once I get comfortable, maybe then I will revisit and hone my skills. Hello, my name is Melody and I am a weak writer!

  • Christina

    Thanks for the reminder about weak words. As a previous technical writer (now spending more time on creative writing) I consistently weeded out “There are” and “There is.” This list you’ve provided will improve my editor’s lens in my revision process. As for the word stuff – I do agree it is a weak word. But recently I used it about 25 times in a blog post. Once even in the title! I’m leaving it in in that case as otherwise the post wouldn’t make much sense.

    http://www.tumbleweedsandseeds.com

    • Lynne R McAnulty-Street

      Hi Christina,
      When I was working in Research Papers’ Quality Control, (which also included checking the report stats against field data), I was Firmly told that scientific reports for this particular research institute were expected to be written objectively, not subjectively, and always in the passive voice.
      So I had to replace language such as “I found forty six specimens affected by … blah blah” with “There were found forty-six …” – the complete opposite from what you were expected and used to doing.
      Funny old world, yeh?

      • F. Armsytong Green

        Dear Lynne, Hi.
        Voice applies only to action verbs. “There were found forty-six,” as you put it, is simply a verb of being, in which case voice does not obtain. “I found forty-six specimens . . .” is active voice. The subject performs an action. If it were passive voice, it would read “Forty-six specimens were found by me.” The subject has the action done to it.
        The classic examples are “Tom hit the ball” (active voice) and “The ball was hit by Tom (passive voice).”
        I suppose the confusion arises by the use of the word “was” in “was hit”; in this case “was” is not a verb of being but a helping verb.
        In the instance of “If I were you, I would . . .” voice is subjunctive and the verb is one of being; thus, my statement that voice does not obtain in verbs of being is contradicted. However, subjunctive voice is an exception to the rule, which English is full of. Subjunctive voice is falling by the wayside but in the construction above, literate peope still can’t stand the sound of “If I was you, I would . . .”
        Besides Strunk and White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE, every writer must have at least FOWLER’S MODERN ENGLISH, FOLLETT’S MODERN ENGLISH, and GARNER’S MODERN ENGLISH USAGE. Other usage books are good but none compares with these.
        As for “there is” and its cousins, see my comments to Christina, if you please.

    • F. Armsytong Green

      Dear Christina,
      Good post! I was wondering if anyone would deal with the empty “there is” and its cousins. In such a construction “there” has been called an adverb and even an “existential” there. In fact it does not fall into any of the parts of speech and is the prime (maybe the only) indication of a weakness in our language. “There” in this instance is a totally empty word though necessary sometimes; nevertheless, in most cases it simply postpones saying what it is that is. It can be useful in fiction when the action is delayed for a moment. On the other hand, there is a novelist who used it nine times on one page. (Oops, I used it, didn’t I?) He is a best-selling novelist to be avoided by all thinking people.
      As for blog posts and email, those forms of communication are just about as informal as writing gets, and we need not be too picky; however, careful writers through habit will not let these things slip in.

  • Anita

    Thank you, a great list to keep in mind.

  • Laura

    As a new blogger, I will keep these words close in order to be a better writer. I am stressing out as I type this comment for fear of using the incorrect words. I will now end this message and put the list next to my computer. :) http://www.cyberforward.com

  • http://www.positivelydreaming.com/ Sarah

    This is such a good reminder of, as you so rightly point out, what we all knew back in high school. Blogging sometimes makes it especially easy to slip into such habits because it’s a fast-paced medium, but ANY medium that displays your voice should be treated with respect. I will now make a greater effort to watch for such insidiousness! After all, the whole point of my blog is to achieve the best in writing, life, home and love … mediocrity has no place.

  • Nick

    I think your assessment of the word “got” is unfair. “I got up” and “I woke up” don’t necessarily mean the same thing. “I got up” can refer to the physical act of raising yourself out of bed, while “I woke up” simply means to not be asleep anymore… anyone with a penchant for lying in bed for at least an hour after waking knows this. And I have never seen “got” used to men “found”. “I got a baseball” could be used (incorrectly) to mean “I have a baseball”, but it could just as easily mean “I received a baseball”. In formal writing, such a use of “got” would be inappropriate because it is vague. In spoken language or informal writing, however, where context clues abound it really depends on what information is deemed most important. If merely having a baseball is what is important for the reader/listener, then you should use “have” rather than “got”. But if it is important to know that you received or purchased a baseball, “got” would be more appropriate than “have”.

    “Got” is not a bad word. Some of its uses are.

    • Lynne R McAnulty-Street

      @ Nick – sorry, I should’ve read the replies before posting my own, as you covered the same point I wanted to make when you wrote…
      “I got a baseball” could be used (incorrectly) to mean “I have a baseball”, but it could just as easily mean “I received a baseball”. ” We’re on the same page here!

    • F. Armsytong Green

      Which is preferable? “He exited the car” or “He got out of the car”? In law, the standard is so low that the first is preferable but in fiction (the highest art) “got” would be preferred, though the writer really ought to show rather than tell if the way the person got out of the car is signifcant. “He crawled out of the car” or “He slid out of the car” could be revealing and pertinent.
      What is a waste of words is “I’ve got the ball” where “I have the ball” is less redundant.

  • thesethingsisjuststuff

    I am not convinced that these words are especially weak. Stuff and Things, if used to be appropriately vague, are fine. Such as: “I want all of the things”. It is a weird sentence but playful, and you immediately understand what the writer is trying to say. In my mind, you use the words that make your readership best understand what you are trying to convey. Otherwise, it is not an exercise in “appropriate” writing, but rather “correct” writing, for its own sake. I simply do not subscribe to that type of, sorry to say- and I almost apologize for saying it-, snob-ism. There, I said it.

    I love words. LOVE EM! But I use the words my readers will best relate to. That is more important, in the end.

    • http://www.thehomemadecreative.com/ Alena@TheHomemadeCreative

      I agree. I adore words, and am known to be something of a grammar snob, but when it comes to writing, I write the words that want to be written, not the ones that are necessarily correct or proper. That said, I have been lazy about this on my blog in recent years, opting for simple and correct over emotive and intuitive, and I regret doing so, deeply. I’m beginning to move back the other way, but I’m choosing to take it slow to avoid freaking out my readers. #lol

  • Cierra

    In high school, one of my teachers convinced me to erase the word WAS from my vocabulary. I loved writing when as a kid, and I still write now. But I find it very difficult to write considering I’m self conscious of the word, and now after reading this, the thought of being a ‘weak writer’. I try my best to go through and replace as many of these words as possible. I just find it very challenging when everyone tells you not to use the them, but don’t give enough tools to help you fix it. I guess I’ll just stick to poetry, where I can write my own rules.

    • Sarah Brentyn

      Write what makes you happy. There will always be someone telling you you’re doing it wrong. People have opinions and that is fine but don’t let it stop you. If you want to write, do it! :-)

    • Actualism

      To-be-words are limp writing when they’re sprinkled wantonly over the page. But some times it won’t do your writing any favours to rewrite it to another sentence. The thing about was/were is that they often — but not always — indicate a passive construction. And so it’s not the word you want to avoid, but the context in which you use it. ‘The tree was cut down that afternoon’ is a passive construction, and was is used because the object of the sentence is before the action. ‘We spent the afternoon cutting down the tree’ or ‘That afternoon we felled the tree’ conveys the same information, but in an active voice.

      Was/were are also words that warrants -ing endings and was/were can be removed by making -ing into -ed. ‘A truck was blocking our way’ vs. ‘A truck blocked our way’, which again gives your writing less of a passive feel and more of a pow.

      So don’t fear the to-be verbs, but know why and when you use them best. With a little practice, and a little less fear of them, you learn when you’ve used those words where the sentence could benefit from a different construction.

  • Lynne R McAnulty-Street

    The word I most often find myself culling from books I edit is ‘that’ — as in “He knew that she was ,,, blah blah.” How much snappier to simply write — He knew she was …”
    B T W – I noted a wee omission from your coverage of ‘got’. Got can also used for ‘was given’, as in “I was given a new skateboard, and a …” — which is passive writing, [Gasp!]

    • Carol Anne Olsen Malone

      Spot on. I despise the word “that.” In my editing, I’ve seen it used three or four times in one sentence. Awful.

      • F. Armsytong Green

        “That” is necessary in certain constructions, especially to distinguish an object from “which.” See Strunk and White.

      • Gianni

        I despise who frequently ommits this word. It’s like it doesn’t exist.

  • DonFenix

    How about “said.” When overused it conjurers the idea of a monotone exchange. “Look out!” he said. “That was a close one” she said. “You wont escape next time!” the other guy said. Ugh. There are so many better ways to express the idea of speaking: “Look out!” he exclaimed. “That was a close one” she replied. “You wont escape next time!” the other guy snarled.

    F. Armsytong Green hit the nail on the head below: the writer really ought to show rather than tell.

  • Rich Leder

    Hi Jeff and all you excellent writers. You should know that Elmore Leonard told us “never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. If you want to argue with Elmore, be my guest.

  • buddysnylontip

    “Had” and its contractions. We’d raced. We had raced. We raced. The last one is better unless you’re intentionally going for a passive voice. Any word you can remove from a sentance and still keep the meaning the same is one to delete.

  • http://www.ktbaskins.com K.T. Baskins

    Instinctively. Romance writers tend to use it. “She instinctively knew he wouldn’t hurt her.” It is lazy writing.

  • Gianni

    There is a word I’ve seen A LOT in writing, and this is “however”. Why not write “but”, or “although”? (Not my native language)

  • http://www.thehomemadecreative.com/ Alena@TheHomemadeCreative

    I received a plethora of unsolicited advice when my blog started to catch attention from strangers. I only just now realized how much of it I unconsciously implemented, and reading this, it’s no wonder I don’t love my writing nearly as much as I used to, and why my readers aren’t wowed either. I try hard to avoid passive voice, but I definitely dumbed down my vocabulary because of the feedback aimed at me – all from family members who refuse to actually read my blog, unless the post is mainly composed of photographs. #hrmph

  • Fiona Tarr

    Thanks Jeff. It is amazing how many of the words you mentioned pop up so easily in writing. As you have expressed, it is lazy writing when there are so many alternatives to choose from, yet these simple words seem to come so naturally and take a conscious effort to eliminate.

  • eureka

    I just realized how the usage of words describe the writer. It makes me become more cautious when writing, to take time processing my ideas before typing it. I want to connect with people but I won’t be able to do that if my choice of words don’t have much impact to my readers.
    A very good article that makes me realizes one of my weaknesses. Thank you for this article!

  • lifeofjoy

    “stood silently”…
    “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” – Stephen King
    I know…’mibad.

    • Stunatra

      He uses his fair share of them. Especially in his older writing…littered with them.

  • tom

    And the light bulb bursts into life, I see your point! It continues to amaze me how most people overlook the simple stuff when providing resources on the interwebs, thank you for the small stuff!

  • http://www.artifix.at Fritz Salzmann

    Good and useful post!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks fritz!

  • Karen King Bruce

    Great point! Although I do believe some of offenders can prove useful at times. Employing these boring words, can help establish a dull or uneducated character. Simple speech lends to the voice of a lackluster or simple persona. Forrest Gump kept it simple.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Oh sure. Totally. With dialogue all bets are off. ;)

  • Molly Totoro

    this brings a smile to my face…

    I recently retired as an English teacher and every graduating student could recite the four words I prohibited in a final draft: get-got-things-stuff.

    So thank you, Jeff Goins, for this positive affirmation.

    And thank you for sharing other lazy words that I need to eliminate from my own writing.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      My pleasure Molly!

  • http://www.annepeterson.com/ Anne Peterson

    How about “that”? I see many times it’s not needed. Wow, I noticed I looked over my comment to make sure I didn’t use any of the “no-nos.” Had to edit it, I had “just” in there. Great post, thanks for the reminder.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Amen to THAT. ;)

      • Stunatra

        A lot of people use THAT when they mean to use WHO…

        • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

          The worst!

  • Kathi Laughman

    Excellent reminder that language is part of our craft. By using all of its flavors, we bring our work to life and make it more compelling. My contribution to the conversation would also be to use caution in over-using particular words. For example, if everything is amazing, then amazing loses its value as a response.

  • http://www.GoDeeperStill.com/ Lana Vaughan

    Really….just don’t use it….I really mean it…Just don’t!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Really?

  • Russ Slater

    I’m guilty of overusing all of these (at least in the rough draft). I try to ignore that itch to stop at every new paragraph and edit the previous, but that can be tough. A completed, shitty rough draft motivates me to push forward much more than a “perfectly” edited/revised chapter or two. Another great post, Jeff. Keep up the good work!

  • http://www.Marketing4Traffic.com/ Devani Anjali Alderson

    Damnit Goins! Now I have to rewrite everything :p But I agree, each sentence we write we should think: “Does this add value? / Do these words compel anyone to take action?” etc…

    I know I use the above words listed way too much but I’m working on cutting them out. Actually, the Thesaurus has become a great friend and I’ve learned a plethora of new words … Like the word ‘plethora’ instead of ‘a ton’ ;-)

  • StellasPlea

    I absolutely love this post. Read it a while back, and searched my manuscript for all these words. Now doing this again with the second manuscript. Also share with many people I know. Thanks (AGAIN), Jeff.

    Blessings! Renee-Ann <
    Author of Stella's Plea

  • http://thechelseapage.com/ Chelsea

    I use “that” A LOT in my posts. I have begun deleting it whenever I see it knowing that it is not needed. Now I see I use all the words you mention above and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to write something again. haha. :)

    • Stunatra

      A lot of people use THAT when they mean to use WHO.

  • http://jdvorak.postach.io Dr. Jim Dvorak

    The stuff you wrote in this post has such a prescriptivist ring to it, Jeff. :p

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      You’re welcome?

  • http://RichardGriffiths.azurewebsites.net/ SoulFireMage

    Having just tried to write a story, I’m finding it impossible to substitute all those “was’s”. The story is set in a past tense, inviting a lot of was, were, went usages. How do I fix that?