How to write wholesomely: drop these empty words

Weak words

Empty words are ones that don’t provide anything new.

They don’t help paint a picture, nor do they help readers imagine a situation any clearer. In business writing, you should strive to be clear and concise, and not waste words that slow your reader down.

First, some grammar notes:

Weak adjectives

Adjectives are describing words. So in the phrase “a scary film”, scary is the adjective. In “a red car” it’s red.

Adverbs describe adjectives, verbs or other adverbs. So in “a really scary film”, really is an adverb. In “she drove her red car dangerously” it’s dangerously.

Verbs are doing words. In “we watched a scary film then drove home”, watched and drove are verbs.

Drop empty adjectives and adverbs to make your writing stronger and more assertive. Here are some examples:

Very

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. —Mark Twain

Very is a lazy way of increasing the intensity of a word. Florence King, an American author noted for her acerbic wit called it the most useless word in the English language, as it weakens what it intends to strengthen. She compared the shallowness of I love you very much to the intensity of I love you.

Instead of we were very happy to win the small business award you can either use a better adjective (jubilant, over-the moon, delighted, say) or cut it out altogether.

Instead of a very quiet audience, try silent. Rather than a very clever scientist, describe him or her as brilliant.

Quite

Quite usually lessens the intensity of what you want to describe. That’s one problem, but it’s also an ambiguous word.

How does quite fast compare with just fast? How big is quite a big problem? If something is quite fascinating, is it more or less fascinating that just fascinating? You’re quite correct usually means totally correct, but non-native speakers may be confused. Avoid it.

Significant/Significantly

New business grew significantly in 2017

Significant doesn’t tell the reader anything. Why is it significant? Compared to what? Be assertive with new business surged, or give specific information: new business went up by 20%.

Other empty adjectives and adverbs include:

  • key
  • really
  • enhanced
  • major/majorly
  • material/materially
  • meaningful/meaningfully.

Some Solutions

You can use verbs to give more power to your writing. For example, instead of:

We’re offering major customer access improvements

try:

We’re improving access for customers by… (see also How to treat nounitis).

Verbs make it easier for readers to imagine a real situation. Try to use active, concrete verbs as much as possible to create a vivid picture.

Weak ADJECTIVES in dating: HOW not TO sell yourself

Drop these empty adverbs

The problem doesn’t just apply to business writing. Plenty of Fish’s dating blog warns us of a group of adjectives that are seen all the time on dating profiles, but don’t mean anything.

For example: I’m friendly, fearless, trustworthy and funny. No-one would describe themselves as unfriendly. People won’t believe you’re fearless or trustworthy on your say so. And your sense of humour can be funny for one person but not for another.

Much better to give an example of how you’re friendly (always asking people names), fearless (you overcame your fear of flying and now are a world traveller), trustworthy (everyone puts you as their emergency contact) or funny (you can’t take your dog out dancing; he has two left feet).

POF’s article underlines the fact it’s more persuasive when you show, don’t tell. That principle is the basis of good writing, from novels to journalism to CVs, proposals and annual reports.

Be like Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was sparse with adjectives and adverbs, which helped his vivid style. There’s a great tool for weeding out problem adjectives and adverbs called the Hemingway App.

It shows you which words may be hindering your text’s readability. It also looks for long, complex sentences and words that have simpler alternatives. Copy and paste some text into the box to get ideas for improvement.


Want to learn more? You can learn many ways to write more assertively in my Writing to Persuade course—do take a look!

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