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Overused Phrases and Incorrect Words Hurting Your Writing

Words, glorious words.

They can convey so much. Or they can convey nothing.

They can persuade. Or they can repel.

During these unprecedented, historic times (wink, wink), our lexicon has both grown and become stunted.

But this pandemic has only exacerbated a fatigue that’s existed for years. Overused, incorrect, and fuzzy words have plagued writing for centuries.

Overused, incorrect, fuzzy words have plagued #writing for centuries, says @AnnGynn via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Share on X

Unfortunately, content marketers often are guiltier than others – forgoing their mission to attract readers in favor of sounding “smart” with jargon, acronyms, and multisyllabic words repeated throughout their content.

How many of these missteps are you guilty of? (Raising my hand here.) How many get on your nerves?

Make it your goal to overcome word fatigue now and in the future. Your readers will thank you. (And speaking of thanks, here’s a shoutout to all who responded to my Twitter call for #overusedwords – some of the replies are included below.)

1. Say what you mean

“Social distancing” has become a popular phrase, but it’s a poorly worded one. The call for social distancing to help stop the spread of the coronavirus is better described as “physical distancing,” which suggests keeping a measurable space between people. The point is that people should stay at least 6 feet away from each other. But they can stay close socially – otherwise all those Zoom happy hours shouldn’t be happening.

Unless you are required to use the official language of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, use the more precise phrase. Follow that advice for your non-pandemic verbiage too. Your readers shouldn’t need a parenthetical phrase to understand the meaning. Detail concepts clearly and precisely.

What terminology do you use that’s as unclear as “social distancing”? Come up with a list of industry and brand concepts you frequently use in your content. Are they as precise as they could be? If not, get to work and make them clear cut.

2. Don’t make readers feel stupid

Ever had a medical appointment where you left feeling more confused than when you arrived? The doctors used lingo, acronyms, and brief explanations they knew backward and forward. You may have had little time or desire to ask them to explain what they were saying.

Do you do something similar to your readers? Probably. We all assume our target audience is as familiar with the industry terms and acronyms as we are. We don’t want to insult anybody’s intelligence. And we don’t want readers to think we’re providing the definitions because we had to look them up.

But you should play dumb in your writing.

Play dumb in your #writing and readers will silently thank you, says @AnnGynn via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Share on X

Write out acronyms on first reference, whether it’s personal protective equipment (PPE) or key performance indicators (KPI). If you consistently spell out acronyms – even when most in your audience are familiar with them – you set a standard that your readers will silently thank you for.

When using industry jargon, offer an explanation. Or if your content is so dense that explanations will disrupt the flow, create a glossary at the end (and link to each term in the copy).

3. Avoid inaccurate, superlative phrases

You know fact-checking is a critical step for your content. But do you fact-check your words? I’m not just talking about spelling and grammar. I’m talking about whether you’re using your words accurately.

Christoph Trappe shared a few phrases he frequently sees – “state of the art,” “industry leading,” and “customer centric.”

Interestingly, those three phrases often come from brands wanting to elevate their importance. But readers see through those inaccurate phrases and in rare circumstances may call brands out for using them.

Suhail Omar adds a few more words to the accuracy checklist – “largest,” “biggest,” “best.” “One of the ‘largest, biggest, best’ in the region … is the most abused sentence by marketers,” Suhail tweets.

Before you publish your words, make sure they’re accurate.

Before you publish your words, make sure they’re accurate, says @AnnGynn via @cmicontent. #CMWorld #writingtips Share on X

How do you know they are accurate? Well, “state of the art” and “industry leading” as well as “biggest,” “best,” or “largest” are comparison words. If you don’t have the ability to compare, don’t use them. (And if your “customer-centric” content reflects the brand more than the customer, delete the phrase.)

Piet van Lier smartly points out a recent popular hashtag #InThisTogether. While the pandemic affects all of us, the catch phrase, particularly the word “together,” often is a misnomer. “Evidence shows that so many people are being left out. (T)he pandemic has revealed so clearly many disparities and inequities.”

The best way to let readers know your words are accurate? Follow the old mantra, “Show me, don’t tell me.” Use your words to show how you are in this together and why something is state of the art, leads the industry, focuses on the customer, etc.

For example, don’t write “Our facility is state of the art.” Instead, write: “Our state-of-the-art facility debuted a newly released technology to speed up the production process.” Or better yet, get rid of the braggadocio altogether: “Our facility debuted a newly released technology to speed up the production process.”

It may require more than a few words, but your readers will now see what you mean. They won’t have to take your word for it.

4. Doubt yourself

Did you ever read the lyrics of a favorite song and realize you had been singing them wrong for many years? You knew” the words, so you never bothered to look them up.

Writers are often guilty of assuming they know a word’s meaning and using it frequently until they get caught or hear someone use it correctly. Mike Myers saw someone use “unchartered territory” the other day. “No,” he writes, “It’s uncharted territory. No one charters a boat for the unknown, and, still, no.”

Erin Wainwright offers up another inaccurate and overused word: unique. It means one of a kind. Something can never be “very” or “really” unique. Treat “unique” like “pregnant” – it is or it isn’t.

I once had an editor who frequently talked about “flushing” out a story. (I chuckled silently without correcting him.) I still read and hear many people talk about “flushing” something out in ways that has nothing to do with toilet paper or dead goldfish. (Fortunately, most people write about fleshing out ideas.)

We’re all guilty of misusing a word here and there because we assume we’re right. The fix? Do this periodic exercise my Spanish professor required – look up every single word or phrase in your content. Don’t assume you know the meaning, the context, the spelling, etc. Look it up. I realize that you can’t do this for every piece of content. But even if you did it once a month or so, you’d boost your word accuracy in other content too.

5. Don’t be lazy

The very definition of cliché – a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays lack of original thought – means you should rarely, if ever, use them in your writing.

And yet, they become clichés for a reason. Content creators love using them. Why? They’re easy to think of (because they’re top of mind), they may easily convey a concept (because they were once original), or they may be popular with the intended audience (because they’re used frequently).

What lazy phrases do you use? Scan your draft and highlight any clichés. Then go back and rethink them.

Are there go-to phrases you see frequently in your content? If you have multiple writers and editors, it likely isn’t hard to find them. Your team gets so used to them, they no longer “see” those as words to evaluate and edit.

Mike Sweeney understood the need for clichés – tone-deaf, unprecedented, etc. – early on in the pandemic. “While they were completely valid for the time, they’ve become so overused. At least give them … a three-month hiatus,” he suggests.

I agree. I see many instances where COVID-19 clichés can be removed and not replaced. Everybody knows we’re living in a pandemic. With almost everything your audience reads, it brings that context. You probably don’t need to write about “living in unprecedented times.” Just get to your point.

You probably don’t need to write about “living in unprecedented times.” Just get to your point, says @AnnGynn via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Share on X

Here are some other suggestions for words and phrases to limit or eliminate from your content:

  • Leverage – why can’t we just “use” something – Ardath Albee
  • Synergies – I really only hear that word when the person has no idea what they’re talking about – Jeremy Bednarski
  • Crisis and recovery phase, tactical solutions, customized/personalized solutions, customer journey, content is king, bite-sized, brand identity, new normal – Mahima Kini
  • Cross-functional, circle back, align or alignment – Mark Esdon
  • New normal, new now, unprecedented times, snackable content, bite-sized content – Lisa Dougherty
  • Robust – Piet van Lier
  • Engagement – it was overused pre-pandemic and it has gotten worse – Jim Samuel

Emilie Moreland shared this 3.5-minute video to summarize her view of recent overused words. (How many brands do you see mentioned?):

6. Check your word crutches

Each writer has a voice, using words frequently or structuring sentences similarly. Since I edit some authors frequently, I sometimes can guess who wrote it without looking at the byline. Editing others also has made me notice a few of my own – actually, in fact, just, currently, etc.

Do you know which words and phrases are your quirks? You can identify them a couple of ways. If you have editors who frequently edit your content, ask them. Even if they can’t remember off hand, they can pay close attention the next time they review your work and make notes to share with you.

Do you know your #writing quirks? What are your go-to words and phrases that you overuse, asks @AnnGynn via @cmicontent. #CMWorld Share on X

You also can review your own material. Carve out an hour or so. Then read five to 10 pieces you’ve written. A scan or a quick read works best. Have a pen and paper handy (or simply highlight) to record words and phrases you use too often.

Stop before you drink

The simplest solution to avoid overused words is to realize you’re doing it and then take steps to use them less often. Even simpler, take E.M. Rogers’ advice: “If people could create a drinking game with the buzzwords … it might be time to try something different.”

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute