By Julia McCoy published January 8, 2017

15+ Worthless Words to Cut to Improve Your Readers’ Experience

improve-readers-experience

Let’s be honest: Nobody likes flab, especially when it comes to content.

Few things are worse than coming across a chunk of copy stuffed with icky, flabby, worthless words that don’t need to be there. They’re distracting and alienating, and it drives your readers away. 

To become a better writer and provide more value to your readers, get rid of these 15+ words sooner rather than later:

1. In order to

OK, it’s not a word – it’s a phrase. But still. This is one of the flabbiest things I see. Plenty of people use the phrase, but not one sentence would stop working if “in order to” was deleted. This one small change makes the statement clearer.

2. Really

“Really” clogs your content. Think of it this way: If you’re saying something is “really” tall, you’re missing the mark. How tall is it? Quantify it. If something has “really” improved, readers want to know how much. Qualify it. While the purpose of “really” is to exaggerate something, readers respond better to text that gets more granular in its measurements. With that in mind, swap this vague term out for a more accurate descriptor. If you can’t be more descriptive, delete “really.”

The word 'really' clogs your #content. Don’t use it, says @JuliaEMcCoy. #writingtips Click To Tweet

3. Believe and think

“Believe” and “think” both imply that something is either opinion or that nobody is sure how valid it actually is. Both are bad for your copywriting. People are more interested in the facts and hard information than they are in vague thoughts. What’s more, even if you are writing an opinion piece, readers should understand that based on the context, making “I think” a needless phrase.

These two words also are used when a writer isn’t sure about the statistic or fact, and that is dangerous. Again, readers want solid information, and merely “thinking” a statistic is true isn’t enough to get it past the firing squad. Don’t include if the fact needs to be qualified as a thought or belief.

4. A lot

“A lot” is similar to “really” in terms of vagueness and flab. Saying something is “a lot different than it used to be” robs your readers of an experience. While they understand that something has changed, they don’t know what it was or how much it’s shifted. They want more specific information to make good decisions and to connect with your writing on a deeper level.

Instead of using these vague phrases, replace them with hard-and-fast statistics. Go for percentages, pounds, solid units of measurement. Those quantifiable terms perform better than the old standby “a lot.”

5. Always and never

These two aren’t flabby, but they are seldom true. If you say, “Marketers never consider their clients,” you’re horribly off base. Applying an all-inclusive adjective paints with too broad a brush on the topic and is reckless. Instead, opt for “few” or “rare” if you need to quantify but don’t have the numbers. The same thing applies for “always.” Instead opt for words like “most” or “many.”

6. Stuff

Stuff is a downright unprofessional term that harms your content. It is not descriptive or specific. Instead define what that “stuff” is. Consider these two headlines: “Stuff You Should Do for a More Successful Blog” or “5 Writing Tricks for a More Successful Blog.” The second headline is specific and clearly states what the article is about, which is more helpful to your readers.

7. Just

The only time “just” has a place in your content is when you’re talking about something being just as in “fair.” For example, “The trial was just.” Uses of “just” to imply something is small or inefficient (e.g., “She just couldn’t do it”) don’t add anything to the sentence. In most cases, you can remove the word “just” without affecting the sentence’s meaning.

8. That

“That” may seem like an inoffensive word, but it’s usually not necessary. For example, “It’s the most delicious cake that I’ve eaten” could just as easily be “It’s the most delicious cake I’ve eaten.” Remove this flabby word for more streamlined content.

9. Then

“Then” makes your writing stammer, which is the opposite of what you want for professionally created content. To smooth your text, remove the word “then” whenever the sentence still makes sense without it. And don’t start sentences with “then” because it makes the sentences sound clunky and can make them difficult to read.

10. Literally

People frequently misuse the word “literally.” It means exactly. Whether used correctly or incorrectly, the word often is superfluous. Get rid of it or replace it with something more descriptive and precise.

11. Virtually

Virtually means nearly or almost, or by means of virtual reality technique. In most cases, the sentence makes sense without this flabby addition. Unless you’re talking about someone who works remotely, virtually has no place in your writing.

Unless you’re talking about someone who works remotely, 'virtually' has no place in writing, says @JuliaEMcCoy. Click To Tweet

12. Completely and entirely

You can remove “completely” entirely from your sentences without affecting them (and “entirely” too). If you want to emphasize or visualize the completeness, use more descriptive terms. For example, “the cup was filled to the brim with water,” works much better than “the cup was filled completely with water.”

13. So

“So” is another word that doesn’t do much. Despite this, however, many people still use it, particularly as a transition or explanatory word. Delete it without affecting the sentence’s meaning.

14. Got

“Got” is a lazy word because it doesn’t tell people much about how or why someone got something. Look for words that add power such as “obtained” and “earned.”

15. Often

“Often” teases readers by telling them that something happens frequently without being clear. With this in mind, replace “often” with a descriptive term such as “five times a week” or “20 times a day.”

Strive for stronger writing

Cutting or replacing flabby words is a key component to improving your writing. You must edit yourself mercilessly. As you read each word or sentence, consider whether it contributes to your meaning. If not, get rid of it.

As you get rid of the flab, you can build up the muscles in your content:

  • Use action verbs
  • Limit the use of adjectives
  • Avoid idiomatic expressions

As you write in a way that’s easier for people to understand, your content is more likely to attract more readers, which should deliver better results for your content marketing program.

To ensure that your content development is effective, subscribe to receive the free CMI newsletter for expert tips, great examples, and more.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Julia McCoy

Julia McCoy is a writer and entrepreneur. She created three businesses and wrote a book at 16; at 20, she dropped out of nursing school to teach herself online writing and start Express Writers. Today, her content agency has over 70 writers and thousands of worldwide clients. Julia hosts The Write Podcast and #ContentWritingChat, and is the bestselling author of So You Think You Can Write? The Definitive Guide to Successful Online Writing. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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  • http://gearboxmagazine.com Brian Driggs

    So, I just love this one. Really! Literally!

    (Haha)

    I’ve been removing “that” wherever possible for a few years, and love the little buzz I get each time I do. There’s a sweet little positive reinforcement loop at play with this advice which makes it among the easier ways to tighten up your work.

    Thanks for sharing this collection.

  • myles sweeney

    … and CLEARLY …

  • http://www.whrill.com Waqar Ahmed Shar

    Thanks for informative article. I do agree the omission of these unnecessary words will make writing more powerful.

  • CR

    “to try to…” and my favorite, “to try and…” just say “to”

  • chispitacarreras

    Loved the article, Julia. As a native speaker of Spanish, I always welcome tips for better writing in English. It’s funny–every time I write a blog post those are the words that I spend the most time trying to incorporate into my writing. I’m always wondering, “Do I sound more foreign if I leave them or if I take them out?” From now on I’ll just stay away from them. Thanks for the insight! I’m definitely applying these tips as of today. =-)

    • Julia McCoy

      Kudos to you! I can’t imagine learning a second language, let alone learning what “flabby” words to cut out of it as I use it. Interesting that you thought these were the best ones to use. The nuances of language. #wordnerdsunite

  • Ben Opsahl

    Feels like this article is feeding us for a day, not teaching us to fish. It skims through the “why” (most important part) and goes right to a prescriptive checklist, often opinionated and without much consideration for exceptions. Most who follow this checklist verbatim will end up making the same mistakes but with different words. Avoiding specific terms to improve your writing is short-term thinking. There are concepts underneath that I would have liked to see the author dig further into.

    • Julia McCoy

      Take it as you will! I mean it as advice for those creators that are in fact blatantly misusing this “common” list of “flabby” words.

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  • http://imahockeydad.com/ Jeff Riddall

    Ahh, “that” strikes again. I am on a personal crusade to have it removed from the English language entirely ;-).

    • Ben Opsahl

      That would cause more problems than you might think! Don’t make the mistake of avoiding a word for the sake of avoiding a word. That’s the problem I have with prescriptive mentalities. It impedes new writers from taking ownership over their voice and style. There’s no catch-all checklist for effective writing and lists like these are misleading. That said, I agree with the underlying thought behind eliminating these words; it’s just that the reasoning should be the focus, not the words themselves.

      • http://imahockeydad.com/ Jeff Riddall

        In the case of this particular word, the reasoning is it’s more often than not unnecessary, as Julia’s correctly pointed out. I likewise agree words should not simply be removed for removal sake, however, tightening up language to make content easier to read should always be a goal. And that’s all I have to say about that ;-).

        • Ben Opsahl

          Yup, agree with the principle. My concern isn’t really for other adept writers. It’s for people who want to improve their writing. I think her summary section is spot on; I would prefer the rest of the article to follow that. She doesn’t really acknowledge that these rules are fluid and even the best writers (whatever that means) let these “errors” slip through regularly.

          The message, in my opinion, should be that editing and self-review are the foundation on which you should improve your writing. Eliminating these words can be a good start, but you still need to understand why you’re eliminating them. Else you’ll commit the same “error”, just differently.

          For example, this sentence immediately jumped out: “Despite this, however, many people still use it, particularly as a transition or explanatory word.” The word “however” is unnecessary, but it’s not on the list. I’m just arguing against the checklist way of thinking. It’s not sustainable and doesn’t lead to lasting improvements in writing.

  • Tim Marshall

    Great article. I’m making this recommended reading for an undergraduate college course I teach on social media management and content creation.

    • Julia McCoy

      What! Tim, I’m honored! 👌 It wasn’t too long ago I was in undergrad school myself. But, not many of my teachers (strangely) went online and ever recommended reading content from the internet. Nice!

  • Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein

    You nailed it!

  • Mellissa Webster

    I was skimming the article in hopes of finding constructive ways to improve my content writing without it feeling to robotic and it seems that I caught Julia breaking one of her own content killing rules by using a “flubby” word.
    The #7 word, just, which is a word that I avoid at all costs regardless of the type of communication I am penning–so I agreed wholeheartedly with Julia’s point and moved on to the next offender on the list.
    As I am reading over #8, I found myself stopping to reread what my tired brain had just processed because the rule mentioned only a few sentences above was just broken.
    Am I the only one to have noticed error? Was this even an error made by the author or was it a way for Julia to test her readers to see if we retained the information provided in the article?

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  • http://www.rohanbhardwaj.com/ Rohan Bhardwaj

    Great list of words to avoid.

    Here is my take – avoid adverbs.

    Sometimes words slip in. And it’s okay. The key is to edit. And publish. Stay Awesome.

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    • Julia McCoy

      Yes. Edit! That’s a huge key. (I usually have 2-3 more pairs of eyes on my content minimum – every single piece I write.)

    • Kristine Allcroft

      You and Stephen King share that advice!

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  • Nancy Johnson

    My particular pet peeve regarding “then” is “and then,” when used in a series of items — as in, “Highlight, copy, and then paste.” Almost always, you only need one or the other, and using “then” in this case often adds meaning and a bit of oomph to the sentence over the simple “and.”

    • Julia McCoy

      Great point to add, Nancy!

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  • Julian Sakanee

    Hey Julia,

    Great post. 🙂

    The word “that” is the one I’m annoyed of the most. Until a few months ago, “that” was one of the most used words in my content. I finally noticed it can break up the reader’s flow.

    A couple words other words I see a lot when I’m reading content are “should” and “think” (or “I think”).

    Especially in posts like this one for example, informational content, right? When you say something like “I think,” people might not listen to you. Because they don’t know or trust you, right?

    As for “should,” especially when you want the reader to do something, I’m not sure they’re going click something because you told them “they should.”

    Know what I’m saying?

    Anyway, I like the post. Great job. 🙂

    Cheers,
    Julian

  • Mellissa Webster

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  • Kristine Allcroft

    Dear Julia,
    These words might be worthless in some platforms.
    However, many of the words in your list are in the YOAST SEO plug in to use for their “readability” score. I don’t disagree with you. Just sayin’ there’s a reason folks continue to use them.

  • Jean Rafenski Reynolds

    I would add “respective” to the list. “Respective” is usually unnecessary (and pompous). The only appropriate use is as a sorting word: “Jane and John are from Kansas and Iowa, respectively” – and even then it’s often better to rewrite the sentence so that you can omit it.