Weak words to avoid in our writing abound, but a select few tend to rear their heads time and time again. Don’t sweat their occurrence in earlier drafts, but do make sure to go on a seek and destroy mission in later drafts. You might even go so far as using the find feature (Ctrl + F) to see exactly how many times each occurs. Nothing makes my editor’s eyes twitch more than these so-called weasel or junk words. The following infographic from GrammarCheck packs quite a punch.
5 Weak Words to Avoid & What to Use Instead
It’s a given that a writer who makes a conscious effort at catching these weak words to avoid will become more mindful about using them less. In the process of making every word count as a copyeditor for my clients, I find myself addressing the use of these essentially useless words over and over again. It’s all part of what I do in my job to make prose more meaningful and engaging, but with effort all writers can readily self-edit to cut down on these essentially useless words.
Along with the overuse of really, other adverbs such as very, quite, and rather do little to intensify meaning in a constructive way. As for the use of things and stuff, their lack of specificity does nothing to help readers better grasp a given concept. Though of course, a character in a book might speak this way, but even then dialogue should be a cleaned-up version of the real thing. Dialogue written exactly as people would speak it can be positively torturous to read.
Another way the use of I feel, I think, or I believe weakens text is because it’s a given the writing is coming from the perspective of the author or narrator. Even more distracting is the first-person narrator who always points out how they saw this and heard that. Such words creative a narrative distance between the reader and the character. Finally, it’s important to note that the use of was doesn’t always indicate passive voice and could be functioning as a linking or progressive verb (The food was fantastic. / She was running a good race.)
What weak words to avoid would you add to the list above? Do any junk words in particular raise your writerly hackles?
Guest Post: Please join me over on Write Speak Sell for a guest post on The Art of Branding a Blog to Write a Book.
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2016.
Great info graphic! I often use the find feature to find “ly” words and am horrified at the results!
Jacquie, the find feature can really be horrifying but in the best of ways 😉
— I’ve written these words, especially “I believe.”
Thank you, Jeri.
Just saved this post. SUPERB.
PS. I DESPISE passive voices and people! x
Kim, passive voice wears thin to quickly and even more so when it comes to passive people.
Excellent timing for this post!
I’ve been pondering this in the midst of draft 2 in my novel-in-progress. In dialog, to show hesitancy or reluctance or lack of confidence, some of the time wasting phrases and words, like “I believe” or “I’m very interested” are realistic. A strong character won’t preface what they believe with “I believe” and they don’t need “very” to describe their interest. They will be “intrigued” “on board” or simply say, “I’m in.”
A weak, reluctant character dancing around what they need to say uses an excess of these weak words.
In narrative text? It’s red pencil time.
Candy, using such words in dialogue can indeed be characterization clues so long as the character doesn’t overuse the words to the point of being too distracting.
Right after I read your blog post, I took a subway uptown and found weak—to the point of infuriating—words in the ad copy above the seats. You have inspired me to start collecting examples in the text all around us. We’ll see where this leads…
Candy, that’s great. I hope you’ll be posting some of those pics.
Thank you for the reminders Jeri. I use ‘I believe’ quite often, sometimes I replace it with my conviction is…do you think the replacement also weakens the text?
When I am convinced that I have to say something in passive voice, I keep telling the underlining monster to shut up! 🙂 yet it underlines and keeps giving the options in active voice!
Balroop, using “my conviction” is along the lines of using “I believe” and best to be avoided to lend prose more weight in the minds of readers and the confidence they will invest in the writer. When it comes to passive voice though, there are indeed times we want the text to remain passive even though the red squiggles say no.
I should really avoid using `really´—- ha… ?
Excellent share, dear Jeri… Very useful, particularly the section which aims to avoid using very +adjective, replacing that by just an adjective. Thanks for sharing… Sending best wishes. Aquileana ?
Aqui, overuse of really would definitely be on my list too. Come to think of it, I definitely use definitely far too much 😉
Great list of weak words to avoid. I am guilty of using a few of these at times. This list provides a good basis for searching my writing for places I need to make it stronger. A word I use a lot (and continue to use even though I continue to edit it out) and didn’t see on the list is some.
Donna, the overuse of some would certainly be in the top 25 weak words writers use. One that I tend to overuse would be “in fact.”
Really great info graphic , particularly the alternatives for very. Two other words to avoid are ‘just’ and ‘that’. In speech is one thing , but in the narrative they usually weaken a sentence. Of course there are occasions to use that as well.
Kathy, “just” is one I find myself cutting from my own writing all the time. I tend to be pretty good about avoiding overusing “that.” It’s so true though how we are often too close to our own writing to catch those weasel works. It’s like the eye doesn’t even see them, yet when we read someone else’s draft, they practically slap us in the face.
I was going to say “add ‘just’ to that list,” but I see Kathy has it covered!
Laura, another I might add would be good. I really like to describe things as good. That’s so bland.
This is awesome! I’m sure I’m guilty of all these. In fact, I was tempted to write this comment in all weak words, but then it just came out sounding like I usually talk. 🙁 Pinning this great infographic!
Meredith, haha! Thanks for pinning.
I would agree with eliminating weak words whenever you can except if you have a first person narration and the narrator’s not a editor. Therefore and Hence always strike me as awkward in a work of fiction. Great post – love the graphics.
Jan, in my own fiction I find myself using the phrase “as if on cue” more than I’d like to admit, but I must be quite fond of it since it keeps working its way in.
Thank you for the list of words to avoid and to use.
I am guilty of using “I feel” and have reduced usage of the word “very” having read it is lazy.
At a communications seminar, we were advised to avoid using the following words;
Phoenicia, my tenth grade English teacher disliked “very” so much and she broke all her students of its mindless use. I wish I could remember the zany way she spoke of its uselessness, but that was long ago and only the main impression remains.
This is a fantastic infographic, Jeri. Thanks for sharing these important tips. Passive voice is a problem I’m working on. Also, tense…as you know, I’ve made lots of mistakes in my manuscript 😉 I’m cleaning it all up. Tense is trickier than I realized.
Lisa, tense really can be quite tricky but it’s always fixable with a discerning eye. When we draft, our brains tend to be more in the present moment as we write even when the story is using simple past so tense shifts work their way in.
I particularly dislike “I feel” or, “I think.” The phrases provide cover to the writer or speaker who doesn’t make a full commitment to her opinion. Yet you even hear the experts who are interviewed on talk shows preface their remarks with these disclaimers.
Jeannette, the use of crutch words can be hard to break that’s for sure. I have a bit more tolerance for them in speech as opposed to text.
I was trained as a journalist and that stuck with me as I later did other types of writing. Part of that training was if you can take a word out of a sentence and not change the meaning of the sentence the word doesn’t belong there to begin with. Most of the words you pointed out fit that. One of my personal pet peeves is the overuse of superlative adjectives which ends up making them meaningless. (I wrote this comment and then reread it and deleted three unnecessary words.
Ken, I’m reminded of writing teachers who will give assignments to cut the length of a piece in half, and then once that’s accomplished, the student is asked to cut yet again. Sometimes, writers only truly get that point fo cutting out extra words when really forced to put the on the chopping block. Wasted words are one of the most certain reasons I will tune out and give up on a book.
Good points and advice which is relevant even when replying to letters and emails. One word my English teacher didn’t like us using was nice. If we said that something was nice- she always made us find another word for it. The word that bugs me a lot is “bunch”.A lot of people will use the word bunch to describe a large quantity – even a bunch of people and to me a bunch should only be used to describe a bunch of grapes etc. I loved the table describing different ways of using the word “very”.
Mina, as a collection noun I feel the same away about bunch. It should be used to refer to something that is growing or fastened together. In that light, it makes envisioning a bunch of people a lot more disturbing!
Well, pretty much every writer I know is guilty of at least a couple of these, including yours truly. Most of them make perfect sense when looking at your examples, although I’ll have to give a bit more thought to “things”. Great infographic and I copied it for future reference. Thanks!
Marty, the infographic should come in handy for future reference. Especially the word list of alternatives to using very.
Oh man. Stripping out over-used words from a newly edited manuscript. Really appreciate this. I mean, appreciate this. Some of my embarrassingly overused words:
Get and got
Tried not to use very too often, and somehow it still slipped in 86 times. Took a screen shot of your terrific list.
Julia, oh yes overusing look is definitely on my list as a writer as well. The manuscript I’m editing right now for a client makes ample use of look as well. Doing so can create a narrative distance between the reader and the narrator.
This is awesome, Jeri. I know that many of these sneak into my early drafts and I have to really (oh look at that) focus on cleaning them up afterward. It gets tough, especially when it’s so natural for me to put it in. The word I struggle with even more is just. It just pops up everywhere!
Loni, just really does just pop up everywhere!
Great infographic and good reminders too. I sometimes get too ‘Chatty Cathy’ in my blog and up pop the really very imprecise brigade.
I’m in interested in the passive voice though I don’t think I use that much but am going to be conscious of it from here on in.
Rosalind, it’s always good to double-check for passive voice. Let the strong verbs do the work, I say.
Jeri , I used I feel and I think. Heck, I used all of them in my writing. I do try and catch myself when I fall back on these words. I know I can tend to repeat words. I always scan my work for too many repetitive words. Thanks for the reminder. =)
Crystal, like all habits, the habit of honing in on wasted words takes practice. You’re branching out all the time in your writing and become more aware of how to tackle usage issues.
This post is perfect, as I sit with a printout of my novel and red pen in hand! I added some notes to my ever-present “problem word” sheet. I write using Scrivener, which makes the search and kill process easy.
I figured out early on to write a whole draft, using all the nasty words that naturally fly out. But then it’s seek and destroy.
Like Ken’s comment. In this book I felt I was using “that” too much. I took every instant of “that” out and am putting it back in where it has to go. That was kind of fun.
It’s very hard to write without any adverbs! 🙂
Rosemary, death to adverbs! Yes, really… I hate those pesky buggers that take all the glory from the verbs that should be doing the heavy work in making a sentence tick.
Great post, Jeri. I would have liked to have seen the word “myself” included on the list of bad guys. We can definitely do without that one, and SO many people misuse it. My pet peeve.
Doreen, I think we could easily do a Top-100 list when it comes to words to cut from our writing 😉
Jeri, I feel as if I’ve just been slapped on the wrist by a teacher – I am guilty of using all of those words. I’ve pinned this so I can refer back to it when needed.
Lenie, oh no! It wasn’t intended to be meant as a wrist slap 😉 We all use these weak works when drafting, but we can always get better at getting rid of them before we hit publish.
Example of the worst intro to a blog comment ever:
“I feel I was really impressed by the very clever things you said.”
Maybe not quite as bad as ‘nice post u dun good’ but it would be up there.
Awesome infographic, Jeri.
And great topic.
Back when I was in sales, I used to keep a list of “wimp words” to never use with a prospective client on the phone. Words like maybe, kinda, basically, and so forth.
They soften the overall message.
Brent, keeping a list of “wimp words” to avoid with clients is great. I never made an actual list when I was teaching, but there were definitely words I would try to avoid while teaching lessons.
This is a good post, with helpful ideas and suggestions. Unfortunately, people get confined into these rules.
If you read an article that has too many passive voice words, then decide if you like it or not. The word police should not be judging works until it had been read.
I actually know of publishers and agents that us a software that determines how many of these passive words are in a document. The software makes the decision if it is good or bad, not the person.
Another point I want to make is who decided certain words are bad to use. I do not remember voting on this? If it is so called professionals, who put them in charge.
I always state, we RULE words, not the other way around.
William, I don’t think software can ever compare to human sensibilities when it comes to language. Rules of effective usage evolve over time for a reason, and no rule applies 100% of the time. That’s the beauty of language.
This is a very good infographic. I need to use some of the advice that it gives. I struggle with some of these words.
Jason, I hope the infographic comes on handy for you.
nice, this help me to learn english, but english not native laguange in my country
Jashon, I can definitely see how this infographic would be especially useful for a non-native speaker. It’s a well-done infographic and easy to access the info at a glance.
Consider a neatness scale that runs from 1 to 10, inclusive. The word “neat” itself could mean 6 or above; “immaculate” is a full 10; “very neat” unambiguously lands at 8 on the scale. Clearly, the prescriptivists who don’t like the word “very” just aren’t very precise, now are they? 😉
Andy, haha. Point taken 😉
It took me a looooong time to understand passive voice and, once I did, I realized WOW I used it a heck of a lot! Thanks for bringing these common “weak” words to our attention, Jeri. You are helping improve our writing, post by post 🙂
Christy, passive voice can be a tricky one for many writers. Yet, once we realize the stronger impact an active sentence can make, our writing is always the better off for it.
Great infographic and writing advice. You must read my blog and cringe at times! 🙂
Phil, more often than not, I snort and laugh out loud when reading your blog. Your posts also make me salivate, so that is always a good thing 😉
I was waiting to see if the word ‘very’ was included in this list.
A word I tend to use a lot and am attempting to eliminate is ‘that’ and, in fact, I had to stop myself from typing it between ‘word’ and ‘I’.
Depak Chopra uses ‘stuff’ a lot and it is sort of cute when he does.
Troy, I’m guilty as charged with overusing “that” as well. I’ll have to note Chopra use of “stuff” as he’s on my TBR list.
Hi Jeri, oh no, I do believe I am a word weasel. 🙂 I’m guilty of using all of them from time to time. I love the infographic. The ways to avoid the use of the word “very” I need to post by my computer. Thanks for the tips on making every word count
Susan, that’s okay. I zap those weasel words when you hand documents off to me for editing 😉
Hi Jeri, excellent post, and I love the infographic! Other weak words (in my view) include: get (and all its forms), a lot (which many people spell as alot), lots, kind of, sort of, like (as in “like, you know…”), plus other colloquial language.
Ramona, your mention of alot as one word brings to mind Allie Brosh and her alot monster. It’s a funny post with great (childlike) illustrations done in Paint.
That infographic is so awesome. I’m crafting this comment while trying to avoid the weak words and it’s really difficult. Pretty interesting about “Things” and “Stuff” because lots of us Travel Bloggers use those words. This isn’t totally related but I use a Headline Analyzer via Coschedule and it’s changed my life as far as posting goes. Just thought I’d pass that on. Thanks again, Jeri. The knowledge keeps coming out of here. Btw, how’d I do on Weak Words?
Duke, not too shabby on avoiding weak words in your comment 😉 Thanks for the heads up about Coschedule. I’ll put it on my list of helpful online tools to checkout.