Five Weak Words that Make Your Writing Less Effective

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

Instead, use a more descriptive noun.


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 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”?


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 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.

464 thoughts on “Five Weak Words that Make Your Writing Less Effective

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

    1. 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?

      1. 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.

    2. 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.

  5. 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. 🙂

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. @ 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!

    2. 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.

  8. 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.

    1. 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

  9. 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.

    1. 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! 🙂

    2. 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.

    3. Agreed with many replies. “Was” (or any of these words) are not bad in and of themselves. Blindly erasing them or replacing them can just as much hurt as it can help your writing.
      Consider: “He never did anything in particular to attract my attention. He just was.”
      1) remove the “was” – Sentence no longer makes sense.
      2) reword the entire thing – Possibly much more convoluted expression of the exact same thing.
      3) remove the second sentence “He just was.” – tone/flavour of the writing changes (less obsessive narrator)

      Consider that in part 1, section 1, of Stephen King’s “The Green Mile” he uses the word “was” 38 times. Perhaps you don’t care for that story. Regardless, the word “was” doesn’t make it weak.

  10. 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!]

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

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

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. “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.

  14. 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)

  15. 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

  16. 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.

  17. 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!

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

  19. 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!

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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!

  25. 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’ 😉

    1. When looking up synonyms, it is important to also look up the meaning of or context in which the synonyms are normally used. People have a tendency to use less familiar words in the wrong context. For example, the word “plethora” actually has a negative connotation to it. “Cornucopia” would be a more suitable word. I just recently learned this about these two words. I used to use them interchangeably.

  26. 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

  27. 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. 🙂

  28. 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?

    1. The irony in seeing this comment after having read the article (hint: Word after “Having”). 🙂

      1. I’m wary of too many tight rules that corset and strangle the act of writing; yet, pallid, grey, bureaucratic writing dribble wimpy sentences all over the place.

  29. What an eye opener. I use was/is/are/am a lot. Now that it has been brought to my attention, I need to find more active words in my writing. Could you recommend more synonyms to use in their place? Like SoulFireMage, I have a hard time coming up with good substitutes for the past tense other than these words.

  30. “Serve to,” e.g., “serve to enhance” or “serve to improve.” No, it won’t. It will enhance or it will improve.
    “A number.” Guilty of this one myself, I’m afraid. “A number of experts believe…” How many? One is a number. So is 10,000.
    “Most people agree that…” How do you know? Have you interviewed “most” people?
    “We’ve all been there.” Again, how do you know? Plenty of people probably HAVEN’T been there.
    “Who hasn’t…” (overspent on credit cards, done something dumb while intoxicated, whatever). Plenty of people haven’t.
    I better stop right now. Thanks for the wake-up call from the author and the commenters.

  31. Spot on Jeff. It takes practice to stamp these words out of our vocabulary and use power words with conviction. Thanks for sharing.

    What if I decide to write a post with an informal tone, does it change this advice?

  32. But in writing it should not be in first person, its easy to change was, is, had, if you were to use first person, but in a situation in writing an essay or news letter it should not be used. As well as second person. I’m a junior, by the way.

  33. Is “bored to tears” a cliche? “To be oversensitive to cliche is like being oversensitive to table manners.” (Evelyn Waugh)

  34. I came across this article from the video you provided about your most popular blog posts. To be honest I came across your site when I was looking for ways to get out of “writers block” and you have really helped me along. Thanks a bunch.

  35. Do you realize how many lists people have created to help novelists or writers in general? They don’t all have the same words. One editor recently stated she hated the word grab or grabbed…who cares what she hates. Editors are suppose to be objective. The genre, the time period and the type of character is what determines the dialogue most of the time. Not whether it is cliche or overused. Some words of course can be removed but sometimes, it’s difficult. Editors need to be flexible about the hard work writers put into their novels, etc. I reword and reword but there are times I can’t change one of the words people complain about. I’ve decided it’s merely opinion because the person has read hundreds of books. Autocrit helps a lot because it picks up if you have overused a word and tells you when you are using a cliche. I have used the program and it has helped. Sometimes I ignore it if the time period warrants the cliche. None of the advice people give is more than an aid. The author is the one who decides and if an editor wants to massacre their work they must decide whether to do the rewrites or self publish taking into consideration some of the changes pointed out.

    1. I think you’re missing the point. Switching in strong action words for “are/is/etc.” provides a much stronger mental image to the reader.

      1. When my writing dries up, I usually find myself describing scenes like, “there are piles of books everywhere and coat spread on the floor.” There are. There are. Or, worse…There were, There were (insert description) I’ve been told this is lazy writing, but I see it a lot when reading books.

  36. And people say ‘my’ writing is cold. different strokes, kiddos. (ignore the weird formatting)

    Michael Carpenter’s face was pale under the Former Knight of the Cross tan of Holy Softball Coaching Awesome, but his bright eyes locked on me with all the old professional concern.

    “Hey, where are we?” I coughed, spewing a little post nasal blood on his restraining hand as I looked around the motel room, “After burning down your favorite national park, I was scared
    we wouldn’t be Bronies anymore.”

    “Harry, you’re my friend,” Michael said again, easing me into the stack of motel pillows piled against the headrest, “We took a vote. All of us agreed we’d rather have you than the park.
    Even Charity.”

      1. Thank you. I am quite the obsessive, and often think in circular, complex phrases. 😉 Am working on it.

        1. It’s equally tiring to read only short, simple sentences, for that matter. A healthy mix is often best.

      2. commas between adjectives, or do you mean like…John walked to the store, and he saw his best friend reading a newspaper. I use commas when the second part of the sentence is a complete sentence on its own. What comma usage was excessive on his part? I often wonder if I’m making this mistake, too.

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  39. For heaven’ sake, Jeff Goins, please do NOT use the ridiculously inflated “utilize” in such a post. It is pretentious and unsophisticated. Use the perfectly descriptive Anglo-Saxon “use”, for crying out loud!

      1. Much better! You reworked it to not only make it more concise, but also removed the adverb. I’m always trying to help writers at my non-profit learn those two aspects of strengthening their writing. Nice work!

        1. I’m amazed at how unpublished writers must abandon the adverb, but the minute you get published, wham every other sentence.

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  41. Sometimes a bunch of actions without a lot of thought seems repitive and boring,Ex:
    “I pull my sweater on and shuffle downs stairs. I lock the door behind me and tie my school before I almost miss the bus. I sat down and I looked at the trees.”
    Since we think a lot more then that it doesn’t make the world come alive with interesting thoughts or details. Just a tip ?

  42. Ironic that a writer would make this grammatical error: “Only use it sparingly when you’re intentionally trying to be informal.” Jeff, you mean “Use it only sparingly…”

  43. The sentence should say “Use it only sparingly.” The modifier “only” links to “sparingly,” not to “use.” You are not “only using it” but you are using it “only sparingly.”

  44. Oh my! I have a long ways to go. Yikes! When you look up “weak writing” there might be a photo of me next to the definition. How did I miss this in writing 101? My 13 year old daughter was rattling off all these same words at the dinner table last night. “Mom? How could you not know about these words?” Here I thought this whole time that I was doing a great job by not having cuss words in my writing. Just kidding. Writing 500 words already takes me forever, now it’s going to be forever plus a whole lot more. Lord help me.

  45. context is like super important. sometimes stuff is like things we we like but not as much as other things. get it?

  46. I tend to find myself using the word “it” a lot, especially when describing specific things. (yes, I used the word ‘things’, get over it) I re-write and re-write but I can never prevent myself from using ‘it’ constantly. And, lets say I’m describing darkness, there are only so many terms for the word ‘darkness’ you can use before sounding like a literature freak. ‘It’ seems to be inevitable for me so if you have any pointers in my area, could you help me out?

  47. “Not only is got a lazy word; it is also vague. In the last sentence does ‘got’ mean ‘found’ or ‘have’?” – “I got a baseball” to me would mean “I received” or “I retrieved” a baseball and the rest of the text would give me enough context to know which made sense. Now, if I meant “I have a baseball” then I’d write “I’ve got a baseball.” And that would make “got” superfluous rather than unclear.

  48. Adverbs, in general, suck the life out of a sentence. Words like almost, really, quite ,great rather… and their “-ly” friends add no value except when used with care, which somehow is (rather 🙂 uncommon. Not to mean that adverbs kill prose altogether but they soak up contextual/literary richness.

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