Tighten Your Writing: Dump ‘Illegal’ Words

You’ve drafted a blog post, magazine article, non-fiction book, or novel. Now it’s time to weed out the “illegal” words – no-really.jpgvague, filler words that clutter your story.

Here’s an exercise to help you cut the wordiness from your piece:

Choose an “illegal” word or phrase from the following list:

  • very
  • really
  • rather
  • just
  • simply
  • it
  • that
  • there was
  • began to
  • started to
  • -ing words (when they’re the first word in a sentence)

Using your word processor’s “Find and Replace” function, change every instance of the “illegal” word to ALL CAPS.

Example:

Find “very” and replace it with VERY

When you change the word to ALL CAPS, it will jump out at you. If you prefer not to change the word to CAPS, do a “Find.” Each time your computer finds very, ask yourself, “Do I need to use very in this sentence? Ninety-nine percent of the time, you can axe very.

Four more words you can almost always chop:

  1. really
  2. rather
  3. just
  4. simply

They’re just filler. Did you notice my illegal use of just in the previous sentence? I can just delete just and the sentence will be stronger: They’re filler.

One of the most common illegal words is really. Experiment with this sentence:

The basketball player is really tall.

How tall is really tall? 5 feet? 6 feet? 7 feet?

Instead of the vague really tall, show us how tall the player is: The NBA player dunked the ball while standing flat-footed.

Now that’s tall! You can visualize the player in the revision, whereas in the original sentence, the player’s height is anyone’s guess.

The illegal word that plagues me is that. That mysteriously appears in far too many of my sentences. Of course, not every instance of that can be removed, but most of them can disappear and no one will be the wiser.

What illegal words and phrases invade your writing most often?

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  • http://www.tandemstudios.net/ Hilary

    Hello Laura,
    Thank you for this post – I now have a name for the words I am trying to excise from my writing. I started my (not “I just started my..” as I originally typed) blog two weeks ago, and I find that I can pare down a post quite a bit before publishing it. I knew that “very” and “really” were common suspects in my writing, but I have discovered others that need to go. While writing an About page last night I decided that “truly” is nothing more than a fancy “really.”
    I have so much to learn about blogging, and I am enjoying the resource you provide.
    Thanks again, Hilary of http://www.tandemstudios.net

  • http://www.tandemstudios.net Hilary

    Hello Laura,
    Thank you for this post – I now have a name for the words I am trying to excise from my writing. I started my (not “I just started my..” as I originally typed) blog two weeks ago, and I find that I can pare down a post quite a bit before publishing it. I knew that “very” and “really” were common suspects in my writing, but I have discovered others that need to go. While writing an About page last night I decided that “truly” is nothing more than a fancy “really.”
    I have so much to learn about blogging, and I am enjoying the resource you provide.
    Thanks again, Hilary of http://www.tandemstudios.net

  • http://www.bloggingbistro.com/ Laura

    Hilary,

    Oooh, “truly” is a good one! In fact, most “ly” adjectives and adverbs can be considered “illegal.”

    absolutely
    actually
    certainly
    fairly
    definitely
    genuinely
    literally
    truly
    sincerely — as in, “I sincerely hope you won’t criticize my writing.”

    “Indeed” is another one.

    I don’t think you have to eliminate all “illegal” words from blog posts, because part of what makes a blog a blog is its conversational tone. But it’s good to post a 3 x 5 card with your most commonly overused words and phrases above your computer, as a reminder to double check before publishing.

    Glad you’re finding our site helpful!

  • http://www.bloggingbistro.com Laura

    Hilary,

    Oooh, “truly” is a good one! In fact, most “ly” adjectives and adverbs can be considered “illegal.”

    absolutely
    actually
    certainly
    fairly
    definitely
    genuinely
    literally
    truly
    sincerely — as in, “I sincerely hope you won’t criticize my writing.”

    “Indeed” is another one.

    I don’t think you have to eliminate all “illegal” words from blog posts, because part of what makes a blog a blog is its conversational tone. But it’s good to post a 3 x 5 card with your most commonly overused words and phrases above your computer, as a reminder to double check before publishing.

    Glad you’re finding our site helpful!

  • JayT

    Awesome topic. First drafts ALWAYS need editing :-) (Second and third drafts, too…)

    Anyway, there is a QUICK way to identify these nasty words. The AutoCrit Editing Wizard from AutoCrit.com is an easy-to-use tool that identifies repeated words, overused adverbs, etc, etc. Once you cut-and-paste your text, there are about a dozen reports you can get that identify different weaknesses in your writing.

    Hope this is useful :-)

  • JayT

    Awesome topic. First drafts ALWAYS need editing :-) (Second and third drafts, too…)

    Anyway, there is a QUICK way to identify these nasty words. The AutoCrit Editing Wizard from AutoCrit.com is an easy-to-use tool that identifies repeated words, overused adverbs, etc, etc. Once you cut-and-paste your text, there are about a dozen reports you can get that identify different weaknesses in your writing.

    Hope this is useful :-)

  • http://www.lorilowe.wordpress.com/ Lori Lowe

    Great list. Another suggestion to delete, which is commonly abused is “I think” or “I think that”. These phrases really weaken the writing, since we already know the writer is sharing his or her thoughts.

    Always enjoy your tips. Best,
    Lori Lowe
    http://www.lifegems4marriage.com
    .-= Lori Lowe´s last blog ..Money Help: Just in time for Valentine’s Day =-.

  • http://www.lorilowe.wordpress.com/ Lori Lowe

    Great list. Another suggestion to delete, which is commonly abused is “I think” or “I think that”. These phrases really weaken the writing, since we already know the writer is sharing his or her thoughts.

    Always enjoy your tips. Best,
    Lori Lowe
    http://www.lifegems4marriage.com
    .-= Lori Lowe´s last blog ..Money Help: Just in time for Valentine’s Day =-.

  • http://www.lorilowe.wordpress.com Lori Lowe

    Great list. Another suggestion to delete, which is commonly abused is “I think” or “I think that”. These phrases really weaken the writing, since we already know the writer is sharing his or her thoughts.

    Always enjoy your tips. Best,
    Lori Lowe
    http://www.lifegems4marriage.com
    .-= Lori Lowe´s last blog ..Money Help: Just in time for Valentine’s Day =-.

  • http://www.bloggingbistro.com/ Laura Christianson

    Lori,

    I think you’re right! And I think that I use “I think” too much. Whenever I edit an article I’ve written, I cross out several “I think” or “I believe.” I need to say what I think and stop telling people I think it.

    Thanks for the reminder.
    .-= Laura Christianson´s last blog ..Tighten Your Writing: Dump ‘Illegal’ Words =-.

  • http://www.bloggingbistro.com Laura Christianson

    Lori,

    I think you’re right! And I think that I use “I think” too much. Whenever I edit an article I’ve written, I cross out several “I think” or “I believe.” I need to say what I think and stop telling people I think it.

    Thanks for the reminder.
    .-= Laura Christianson´s last blog ..Tighten Your Writing: Dump ‘Illegal’ Words =-.

  • Jack Napoli

    @ Laura,

    Excellent Writing sugestions.
    I can’t get enough advice like this.
    My writing is getting worse and worse the more I write.
    Between Twitter, e-mail and texting my Writing Hygiene is out the Window.
    This info like all your material is Right on Point, Simple to retain and recall.
    Very Powerful.
    Thanks.

  • Jack Napoli

    @ Laura,

    Excellent Writing sugestions.
    I can’t get enough advice like this.
    My writing is getting worse and worse the more I write.
    Between Twitter, e-mail and texting my Writing Hygiene is out the Window.
    This info like all your material is Right on Point, Simple to retain and recall.
    Very Powerful.
    Thanks.

  • Jack Napoli

    @ Laura,

    Excellent Writing sugestions.
    I can’t get enough advice like this.
    My writing is getting worse and worse the more I write.
    Between Twitter, e-mail and texting my Writing Hygiene is out the Window.
    This info like all your material is Right on Point, Simple to retain and recall.
    Very Powerful.
    Thanks.

  • http://www.bloggingbistro.com/ Laura Christianson

    Thanks, Jack. Love the term “writing hygiene.” You may have invented a new catchphrase!
    .-= Laura Christianson´s last blog ..On Brains, Marketing, and White Chicken Chili =-.

  • http://www.bloggingbistro.com Laura Christianson

    Thanks, Jack. Love the term “writing hygiene.” You may have invented a new catchphrase!
    .-= Laura Christianson´s last blog ..On Brains, Marketing, and White Chicken Chili =-.

  • Anonymous

    I use all of these too often when blogging. It’s easy to do on a blog when you write informally. I do go back and try to remove many of them. This is a great reminder to keep an eye out for those words. Even if it’s just a blog it’s better to be specific and descriptive, than vague.
    .-= Mommie Daze´s last blog ..Early Bird Special =-.

  • http://www.mommiedaze.com Mommie Daze

    I use all of these too often when blogging. It’s easy to do on a blog when you write informally. I do go back and try to remove many of them. This is a great reminder to keep an eye out for those words. Even if it’s just a blog it’s better to be specific and descriptive, than vague.
    .-= Mommie Daze´s last blog ..Early Bird Special =-.

  • http://www.bloggingbistro.com/ Laura Christianson

    MommieDaze,

    I agree that “illegal” words slip into blog posts so easily. Blogging is a conversational medium, after all. Because of that, we can grant ourselves some leeway to use slang and a sprinkling of “illegal” words — we don’t want our writing to sound stilted.

    It doesn’t take much effort to proof a blog post for overused words that creep into our articles too often. Glad you found the article helpful.
    .-= Laura Christianson´s last blog ..E-Books Gaining Ground on Printed Books =-.

  • http://www.bloggingbistro.com Laura Christianson

    MommieDaze,

    I agree that “illegal” words slip into blog posts so easily. Blogging is a conversational medium, after all. Because of that, we can grant ourselves some leeway to use slang and a sprinkling of “illegal” words — we don’t want our writing to sound stilted.

    It doesn’t take much effort to proof a blog post for overused words that creep into our articles too often. Glad you found the article helpful.
    .-= Laura Christianson´s last blog ..E-Books Gaining Ground on Printed Books =-.

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  • kseniaanske

    Fantastic!!! Thanks so much. Without a pause, I’m off to cutting mine out.