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”

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.

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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. My challenges comes with using adjectives to describe food. I have a hard time not overusing words like : amazing, delicious, the best etc. Also, definitely is a tough one not to use. Thanks for a thought provoking post, it’s a good reminder to take the time to think about how you are saying something. It’s easy to feel the pressure to get a post out and it ends up being your default style language. Here’s to slowing down the process. 
    -Mary (Conscious Kitchen)
    https://marycrimmins.com/

    1. Thanks, Mary. The last thing I want you to do is spend more time proofing/editing/etc. With blogging, people should have freedom to “ship” as often as possible, but what I’m challenged to do is to think more carefully about how I communicate in general.

      So yeah, there’s an aspect to it that includes slowing down to reflect, but more important than that I hope we can all learn to break some nasty habits. Some of these words are like a funny tic that obsessively do without realizing it.

      1. Mary, I agree with Jeff here.  It’s really tempting to “ship” as often as we can.  Taking the time to walk away from the post and then coming back to edit/proof/cut out is quite beneficial.

        1. Right. Within reason, of course. The bottom line is that you get better as you go, so practice is essential. Don’t use this as an excuse not to produce.

    1. In my opinion, “got” is one of the words — it’s too ambiguous. I sometimes replace “have” or “obtained” for it, depending on the context.

      1. Obtained is a great word to use instead of ‘got’~ Thanks!

        I recently discovered your blog when someone, I believe it was Michael Hyatt, tweeted one of your posts. I’m definitely a fan.

  2. I got the feeling all this stuff was really important.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. 🙂 I’ve saved the article. I struggle with not using lazy words in my writing.

  3. I just finished threshing through my manuscript waging war on “had.” I’m amazed how that forced me to find better verbs. 

      1. I got the idea for the war against “had” from James Scott Campell’s ebook “Writing Fiction for All Your Worth.”  

        While clean up the MS I discovered too many sentences that began, “He realized that…” 

        I ended up changing them all to the first person and in italics to make those sentences the thoughts of the character. Much more compelling.

  4. I realized recently that I used these weak words when I write, because I use them when I speak. Making the break between how I write and how I speak is hard enough, but I would like to remove those words from my conversational language as well. Double hard!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Caleb. That’s the challenging part for me, as well — eradicating needless, weak words from my vocabulary entirely.

  5. Good thoughts, Jeff. Thank you for reminding us that our words have power.

    While I agree whole-heartedly with your premise and will continually battle weak writing and speaking, I also think it is important to recognize that “favorite” words we use frequently help differentiate our “voice” for the voices of others. This is in no way intended to be used as an excuse for weak communication, but rather as a source of grace to help and inspire us as we grow stronger.

  6. Love this. Words do not flow from me naturally and I appreciate helpful lists like these. As a science major turned blogger I often wish I had paid much more attention in English class. 

  7. I overuse “kind of” – especially in blog posts. I must use it in my conversations because when I’m typing it comes out naturally. Still, it needs to go.

  8. I need to get better at spotting these words in my own writing. When I read things that others wrote, I notice the extra words that really don’t need to be there.

    I was hoping that you weren’t going to pick words and phrases I use all the time! Shoot! But you are right. Spending a few extra minutes coming up with a better verb can go a long way.

  9. I had a professor in college say the word “impact” was a weak word – nondescriptive. I’ve avoided it ever since. Not sure he was right or not, but that’s a day I remember.

  10. The word that I overuse is “that.”

    Let me rephrase that. The word I overuse is “that.”

    Still needs some work.

    I overuse “that.”

    Sometimes you need “that” in a sentence but most of the time the sentence makes sense without it. Read your sentence out loud and you’ll hear if “that”  is necessary.

  11. Hey Jeff, I WAS reading your post and found some very useful THINGS. I think I GOT your point! No seriously… I did!

    Thanks for keeping us sharp.

  12. Useful information.

    I’ve learned the effort to eliminate overused words can result
    in awkward sentences. I find it better to let one stand occasionally if
    eliminating the word can’t be done gracefully. The important thing is being aware
    of these words so their existence is a decision, not an accident.

     

    I also think overused words work well to make dialog more
    natural. Average/normal people talk that way. You just gotta be careful not to
    really overuse the overused words in this kind of way Jsorry.

    1. I think you’re right in that we need to be conversational in our writing; I’m a big fan of that style, especially with blogging. But for me the opposite is true: Overused words are unnecessary.

      Writing isn’t exactly like talking, because when we’re verbally processing, sometimes it takes time to get our thoughts together. This shouldn’t happen in our writing. We should compose our thoughts, and THEN write. (Or write, compose thoughts, and rewrite.)

      I’m not advocating for overly formal writing; just cut out the distracting fluff.

    2. Imagination is sight with a fresh pair of eyes. Cliches are not good even in dialogue. Why bore readers with boring people?

  13. Oops, not sure where all those extra spaces came from and the Jsorry  was smiley face sorry.

  14. Great hints.  I especially like the use of the verb “went”.  I’m trying to learn Russian and I don’t even think that’s an option; Russian employs very precise verbs of motion.

  15. At my house we play a word of the week game. Each week  we have to pick a word we don’t know (Ok, so mostly it is words my KIDS don’t know, but still!!) then for the rest of the week we have to try and slip the word into conversation! My kids think it is absolutely hysterical. It is dangerous letting a nine year old boy pick words, but all words are amazing, even if what they mean is… not so much! I have done this with my writing for years. I have also been known to write specifically around the use of one amazing word! What can I say, I LOVE words!!!

  16. What a great article! I’ve never actually thought about how little sense “got” makes. The Was/Is/Are/Am was the most helpful bit for me personally. I have to stay alert when I’m writing and be sure to work in some great action verbs.

    You’ve covered all the lazy words I can come up with, but something that kills me is reading a post that contains more than its fair share of cliche phrases (like “more than its fair share”).

    1. I was just reading an eBook by Mary DeMuth about getting published, and she talked about ridding your writing of cliches. It was shocking how much I do that. I’m disciplining myself in being more aware of that.

  17. These words show up often when we don’t feel confident in our material.  Good reminder, Jeff.

  18. Very good points.  It is being lazy, isn’t it?  It all comes back to the old adage:  show, don’t tell!  It’s so cliche, but the truth.  I can’t remember where in the blogosphere I read it, but someone said “don’t describe the rain, describe how the rain feels.”

  19. Working on it. Habits are hard to break. I also struggle to find better words for “good”, “wonderful”, “great”, “awesome”, “excellent”, “share”, “blessing.”   

      

  20. “amazing”

    I’m not that easily amazed.
    Totally empty & meaningless

    I blame Oprah

  21. Thank you! Perhaps we can practice speaking intentionally also.  Matthew 12:36 everyone will have to give an account for every empty word they have spoken. 
    How about “i/I” ?

  22. Thanks for this, Jeff! I have been getting bored with my journal writing, and I taking out some of these words is really going to help! 

  23. Thanks Jeff, as a person who enjoys writing, I am constantly attempting to stay far away from the mundane and cliche. Thinking of weightier words is a noble cause.

  24. Thanks Jeff, as a person who enjoys writing, I am constantly attempting to stay far away from the mundane and cliche. Thinking of weightier words is a noble cause.

  25. I try to be disciplined about editing my writing for these words. That said, I have been struggling with final edits on the last chapter of my manuscript–a project that has eluded me for weeks. When I read this post today, I went back to the chapter and sure enough, it is full of these words. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong until today. MANY THANKS, Jeff, for this timely post. I can now see the light of the end of the tunnel with my rewrites and edits.

  26. AAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!!  GUILTY AS CHARGED!!!!  CRAP!  Why do I feel like you just cut-and-pasted my last six posts?!?!  (Just please don’t write about the excessive use of the ellipsis and other such wonderful punctuation . . . it might destroy me.)

      1. Oh good . . . I consider them to be the blogging version of prescription pain meds . . . legal, yet highly addictive.  Thank you for condoning my habit!

      2. But ellipsis and hyphens (is that what you mean by “em dash”?) do different things, or single out different things.  I not too long ago started using elipsis, and for when a person is thinking about something not written, a pause, I think elipsis have their place.  Tell me if you think differently.

        1. Ellipses do have their place. One of them is as you suggested.
          Look up en dash, em dash, and hyphen in your style manual.

  27. Great post, Jeff. 

    I would also include, “like.” It is becoming increasingly overused. 

  28. I graduated with a journalism degree and this was covered in one of my classes. Oh the memories! Yes, “Have” and “very” are dead words I avoid at all costs 🙂

    Kudos on a straightfoward and informative post! LOVE IT!

  29. I graduated with a journalism degree and this was covered in one of my classes. Oh the memories! Yes, “Have” and “very” are dead words I avoid at all costs 🙂

    Kudos on a straightfoward and informative post! LOVE IT!

  30. I think I’ve got some more weak words you’ll find just about as weak as this sentence.

    – because

    – a lot

    – really

    Thanks for the post…surely caught myself on a number of those. Including this non-needed ellipsis use.

    Cheers!Zack 

  31. Printing 3 copies of this post…Laminating all three…One to tape on the side of my desktop…One to tape on the bottom of my laptop…One to fashion into a clever bracelet to slip on when I’m writing “old school” style.

  32. Very informative!  We all could learn from this post.  I home educate my 4 children and I’m certainly going to hang this one on the wall!  This could be a great addition to my online magazine too.  If you are interested in submitting it, would you kindly contact me at tellitonthemountain@live.ca  Before you decide, please check us out online  https://issuu.com/tellitonthemountain but please say yes?!

  33. The stuff in
    this post just makes me think about things I needed to do that last time I went
    to write a post when I was at the café.  😉

    Thanks for this grammar lesson. I’m constantly trying to improve my prose though I’m not always sure how well that’s working out for me.

  34. Numbers count. Words matter. Each sets a table with brain food. Writer, paint pictures on the heart. Our amazing brains digest for a purpose, to feed the soul.

  35. Jeff,

    When I asked a friend to read over my story, he cut out all the superfluous words (all the words included in your post) and ever since, when I catch myself typing, “got” “went” “just” “stuff,” I revise and seek out my thesaurus for better word choices.

    This was a great post! Concise and on point. Thanks for being awesome.

    Rose

    1. Thanks, Rose! I’m still catching myself. It’s good, though — equivalent to learning how to live with less. You realize how simple the act of writing can be and how we often complicate it!

  36. Adverbs. Adverbs are not our friends. Also, I can’t remember who said it, but I love this quote:     ” ‘Was’ is a passive, lazy bum that hangs around your writing eating all the snacks and drinking all the beer.”

    1. I definitely agree that adverbs are totally overused and redundantly misapplied by verbosely-driven writers who aren’t writing as confidently and authoritatively as they ought. 😉

      I like your slam on “was”.

  37. I had an english teacher in high school that never let us use the word “nice” – stuck in my head for life.  I noticed over the years that is vague and overused.  Peace! 

      1. THINGS FALL APART by Chinua Achebe is a notable exception. The line
        comes from possibly the greatest lyric poem ever (from which many works
        get their titles). “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold” is the
        full line in Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”
        Joan Didion’s SLOUCHING
        TOWARD BETHLEHEM is another notable instance of drawing on Yeats: “And
        what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards
        Bethlehem.”
        Exceptions sometimes prove the rule.

  38. Please consider adding “good” and “fun. ” I am a writing teacher and these words are two of students most frustrating challenges.  I have my students write ten other choices in their journals in order to avoid those words. 

  39. Jeff, what I loved most about this post is that you were very specific. 
    I’ve read a lot of posts about good writing, but they were very generic, hard to put into practice. I will add your post to my “list of items to check before publishing something”. Thank you.

  40. Hi Jeff,

    My name is Sean, and i’m a Weak Word Addict (“Hi Sean!”)…I’m 17 chapters and 80,000 words deep into my first manuscript… passages became much more cohesive after I excised the 70+ “things”!Must save the “just” and “about” exorcisms until the final draft, though… 633 combined instances!Thanks,SeanPS  Too in love with the ellipsis to consider saying goodbye just yet(…)

    1. hah! thanks, Sean. slicing and dicing is an art and discipline. I like this Twain quote: “Writing is easy; you just have to cross out all the wrong words.” Good luck!

  41. Love it!  Just finished teaching a writing class how to take all the is/am/are out.  The kids found their writing had so much more punch when they used dynamic verbs instead.  Last week we removed all the vague terms like “stuff” and “things”.  Good to know I’m teaching/following good advice of the sort you’d give!

  42. I had a professor who railed against the word “interesting,” it’s very non-committal and unspecific. I find I use it a lot when speaking when I’m not sure how to respond to something…or don’t want to say what I’m thinking out of politeness.

    A lot of these words can be hard to avoid, but clearly difficulty isn’t a good reason to avoid seeking improvement. I’ll have to keep a better eye out for these in my writing.

  43. “always”: “I always tell my children the truth,” vs. “I tell my children the truth.” By stating the action, the “always” is implied; but, in truth, few people “always” do something. It’s a filler. The same may be said for “never.”

  44. When I think I’m done writing an article or even a book manuscript (meaning I have edited it about ten times), I’ll use the MS Word feature to “find” the words “were” and “there,” then rewrite those words out. I now have more words to add to my “seek and destroy” missions. thanks!

    1. Kwayatt – I will be added these to my list of things to remove at the very end. It could take as long as the edit by the looks of that list – *sigh*. Great resource though, Jeff. It’s up on my blog roll and in my inbox. 🙂

  45. Inappropriate.  It’s the catch all for: unsuitable, improper,wrong, insensitive, misguided, offensive (that’s overused too), irresposible, thoughtless, and inconsiderate.   Expand your vocabulary.  Stop the use of “inappropriate”. 

  46. Oh yeah, thanks for the article.  Good tips.  I would say “awesome” but very few things in this life are truly worthy of that word.  It should go on your next list.

    1. I think like is overused in speech more so than writing. I would add so, would, should, could, think, and And. Not bad words, just lazy words. Btw thank you Jeff.

    2. I think like is overused in speech more so than writing. I would add so, would, should, could, think, and And. Not bad words, just lazy words. Btw thank you Jeff.

  47. Jeff!!! Invaluable post to me right now! I am in the midst of writing my first book and this…this is amazingly timely. thank you!

  48. When I went to your post today, I got more good things than I thought possible.  It it just me are am I making stuff up.  Great stuff you wrote.  I was there. I just have got to tell you this one small thing.  I think I  almost forgot how very  important all this is.  I used to never feel this way.  Wordiness is a very big deal.  Thank you for not being wordy in the things you wrote in your important post. 
    Just yours truly Ken

  49. I’d add “a lot” to the list.  So good to see someone else talking about this.  Especially the is/am/are “stuff”.  It leads too often to passive voice, which lulls people to sleep.

  50. You’re killing me!  I was reading this post, thinking to myself that surely I don’t overuse those words…and then I searched my own blog for “stuff”, “things”, “just”, and “important”…and it was like opening my junk closet door and standing there while a bunch of junk poured out over my head.  Thinking I need to go remove the plank in my eye now.  😉

  51. This is fantastic and something I have told my kids in their own writing for school.  They don’t take mom the english teacher seriously.  Great quick list to improve writing. 

  52. the examples given on weak words have helped me. as for a inexperienced writer, i look to gain what i can.  if you have any examples of sports writing, i would love to see it. thank you.

  53. this is just so helpful I think that I am going to use the stuff you are talking about in this article at every chance I get. However I feel that it seems a bit small to use these words so often that I almost have got to get used to the big all important idea in this stuff that you wrote.  😉

    Really great stuff!

    *Chris hides in shame of his unworthiness*

  54. “People” is one of the most overused words, and you say it twice when another word would be stronger. For instance, the phrase “another word people use” is nondescript. Which people do you mean? Surely not babies. And you certainly don’t need to make it clear you’re distinguishing between human beings and animals/minerals/elements/plants.  ‘Another misused word” altogether eliminates the need for indicating human beings are doing the writing. “Another word many students/writers/nobel prize winners use” gives the reader more clarity. 
    Definitely do not use “people” when you really mean “certain individuals.” One of the most egregious generalizations in speech is the misnomer “people think/say/do.” Again, which people? Your friends? Your children? Americans? Tahitians? Senior citizens? Clarity, clarity, clarity.

  55. Please consider the phrase “but yet.” It’s weak, redundant and grammatically incorrect. Oh, and an enormous pet peeve. lol

  56. I think the word ‘cool’ could also be included in your list of words to avoid. But allow me to use it one last time. Your article is refreshing for us writers. Cool!

  57. Great post!  

    My mom went to Catholic School so grammar was of utmost importance in our house growing up.  One of the words she said that I overuse too much is ‘have’.  Just putting it in spots where I could be more direct instead.  But I will add these to my ‘use less often list.’

  58. “Had,” “could,” and “should” all seem to relegate any writing to the “Told Not Shown” pile immediately.  And indefinite-number words or phrases  (some, any, many, most, a couple, a few) require weeding out, too.

  59. When I was in freshman English (which was all-composition back then), we were not allowed to use  “the” in our writing.  Even today I try to avoid using it.   Doing so forces me to think of another way to say something.

    1. Me too Michelle! I’ve been proofing some writing for some friends and “that” seems to be the most overused I’ve seen.  Apparently too easy to use when writing.

    2.  Aha! I did a Command “F”, searched for “that” on this page, and only down here did I see it! Amazing how frequently we use this word and forget to take it out. I also believe it’s very overused.

  60. “Though” (or “although”) is one that I’ve been self-consciously trying to excise. Along with “just”, they all seem to water down whatever statements they’re used with.

  61. This is really good! I never really thought that words as simple as those would make writing a lot less afective but then I went back, took a paragraph with a lot of these words and compared it to it after I replaced them.. such a difference! Thank you sooo much!
    So keeping this page in my favs!

  62. Hi Jeff,
    I recently subscribed and your posts are excellent. One of my professors taught me this: replace passive statements with active ones, and common words with “juicy” synonyms. Every time I do this, the lazy words fly out of my sentences (I hope!). 🙂

  63. In high school, I had a history teacher tell us that words like ‘feel’ and ‘think’ make weak arguments. I’m a heart person, so words like these are a natural part of my own vernacular, but I do try to use them sparingly. I can’t use them without seeing the face he made and tone he used when he told us.

    Great list. Thanks!

    xo

  64. I am grateful to be introduced to your website “before” I began seriously writing. Thanks to a new published author (2011) Janet Oberholtzer. The title of her book is: Because I Can-Doing What I Can, With What I Have, Where I Am. http://www.janetoberholtzer.com 

  65. Thanks for the list. I am mailing it to my personal email address. It may not be easy to avoid those words – at least initially – but I will try adopting Kwyatt’s method. Oh…by the way…I love your writing style. It’s revolutionary. As I’m writing from my office PC, I won’t leave my blog URL.

  66. There is a story by Mark Twain, he says every time you want to write the word “very” change it to “damn” instead. Your editor will delete it, and you’re writing will be just as good without it.

    I love that story because  it’s so true (or should that be so damn true?).

      1. “You’re” for “your” is illiterate or the mark of a lazy writer who doesn’t self-edit. (Some call it “proof” but you can’t proof your own work. That’s the first rule of proofreading.) Shamefully, I find typing is easier than thinking–I’ve committed the sin of “You’re” for “your” or vice versa because I’m thinking about where I’m goind with my writing rather than where I am. Remember: it’s not “one word after another”; it’s one word in front of another.

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