Thursday, August 24, 2017

Five Words and Phrases That Add Nothing to Your Writing

There is nothing that can spoil a piece of writing more than poor word usage. Too often, I see an otherwise great essay or story that was difficult to read because it used unnecessary adjectives and adverbs or cliches that add nothing to the story and just take up space on the page. Here are five examples that I see often.

1. Overuse of "very" or "really"

Example: My son was really happy that I took him out for ice cream after dinner.

What, exactly, is the difference between being "happy" and "really happy" in this sentence? Usually, the word "really" implies a higher than normal level of happiness, but that leaves a lot open to interpretation for the reader. Saying someone is "happy" lets the reader know a person's response to something at a basic level, which is good, but "very" or "really happy" could mean many things. It would be better to describe something a person did, to add more action to the writing. For example, "When I told my son that I was taking him out for ice cream after dinner, he was so happy that he jumped out of his chair and gave me a hug."

An even worse variation of this is "extremely happy" (or whatever adjective you use). Whenever I see a writer use "extremely happy" to describe someone, I always picture the music video for "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden where people are prancing around with creepy smiles on their faces. The word "extreme" carries a strong connotation and should be used with caution. Again, don't rely on an adverb that not only wastes space but also leaves the reader starving for details.

2. "It's obvious" or "obviously"

Example: Obviously, we have to do more to help parents afford child care.

There are three ways I could interpret this, and none of them are good:
  1. If it's obvious, then why the heck are you wasting my time telling me that?
  2. I don't agree with you. Can't you disagree with me without insulting me?
  3. I didn't know that. Why are you saying it's obvious? Do you think you're smarter than I am?
In situations like this, the word "obviously" (or a variation of it such as "clearly") at best does nothing more than take up valuable space on the page and at worst can ruin your credibility with the reader. Either take the word out, or remove the sentence altogether.

3. "Wide variety"

Example: At Brian's Family Restaurant, we offer a wide variety of breakfast choices.

"Variety" is a word that, on its own, is already open to interpretation from the reader. Adding an adjective such as "wide" to indicate, presumably, a large number of items makes it even more so. I'm not opposed to using the word "variety" in some cases. But I feel it's a word that should be clarified with examples, to give the reader more information. Here's an example: "At Brian's Family Restaurant, we offer a variety of breakfast choices, including toast, eggs, pancakes, cereal, bacon, and sausage."

In the above example, the writer can definitively prove that the restaurant offers a variety of choices. As long as the menu contains at least two different things, then by definition, they offer a variety. But adding "wide" to the above sentence, at best, is a waste of space and, at worst, puts a lot of burden on the writer to prove his point. A reader could look at this and say, "You said you have a wide variety. But I like to eat hash browns for breakfast. Why didn't you list that?" Or the reader could interpret it even more broadly. "You said you have a wide variety, but those are all American foods. Do you have any foreign menu choices?" To me, adding "wide" before "variety" can only hurt the writer.

4. "On paper"

Example: On paper, the Dodgers are the favorite to win the World Series this year.

As a sports writer, I see a lot of writers use this phrase and I've tried to get away from using it. In the above example, "on paper" is a short way of saying that when we look at the rosters of all the teams, before the season begins, the Dodgers appear to have the most talent. But on what other basis can we judge the teams? If it is a fact that the Dodgers are the World Series favorite, take "on paper" out of the sentence. However, it's more likely that this is someone's opinion and that not everyone agrees. If that is the case, the sentence should reflect that. "Many writers I know are picking the Dodgers this year" or "The Dodgers are getting a lot of love from writers as we begin the season" are examples of how to do this. Or better yet, the writer should take ownership of his claim: "I believe the Dodgers will win the World Series this year."

5. "It goes without saying"

Example: It goes without saying that winters in Michigan are always harsh.

If it goes without saying, then why are you saying it? I have never understood why any writer would use this phrase. If you include it in your writing, I'm going to assume that you did indeed think it was necessary to say it in order to make your point. If your point truly is so obvious that you don't have to say it, then omit it.

Do you have more examples? Let me know!


  1. Great post! I agree with all of the above. I'd also add "unnecessarily," which I often see attached to dialogue tags -- "she said unnecessarily." If it's unnecessary, why is she saying it? :-)

  2. I enjoyed your post and would add the word "amazing." It's been so overused that it has lost all of its meaning.

  3. A good reminder. Thanks for the post.

  4. I would add, instantly; immediately; and suddenly.

    1. Yes I see times where those words aren't necessary, thanks.

  5. I would add 12 noon or 12 midnight. I know you mentioned "very", but I'd like to add "very unique" as if using very makes something even more unique. Thanks for the reminder to watch for over used words.

    1. Thanks, I almost used very unique as an example. That annoys me.