If you write often, it’s easy to overuse certain words out of habit. But limiting your word choices to a handful of trusty mainstays can lessen the impact of professional writing.
Do you fall back on crutch words like good, really, and absolutely? Or do you tend to pad out your prose with filler words like just, then, and that? If so, your writing is in danger of becoming boring and predictable. More seriously, it could lack meaning and come across as lazy and unimaginative.
The key to compelling writing is determining exactly what you want to say and choosing words that fit precisely. With over 170,000 words at your disposal, there should always be an option that’s both apt and original.
Below we list some of the most common examples of overused words and suggest ways to replace them.
Ranking Words: Good, Great, and Bad
These are all words that indicate the quality of something. (Another common offender in this category is nice.) The problem is, they don’t tell the reader anything about why the object in question is good, great, or bad. They merely express the writer’s opinion of its value.
If you find yourself reaching for one of these words, try searching for one that reveals more information. For example, if you’re writing about an idea for an email campaign, don’t simply describe it as a good idea. Instead, consider what you like about the idea and find a word that communicates that (e.g., inventive or clever).
Likewise, if you’re tempted to label something as bad, consider why you feel it’s bad and find a more expressive and meaningful alternative. Bad could mean quite a few things, such as tedious, unsuitable, or inaccurate.
If you do want to offer your opinion on the overall quality of something, try to think of a more powerful alternative. Instead of good or great, consider remarkable, terrific,or phenomenal. And if something isn’t so great, how about inadequateor mediocre?
Degree Words: Very, Really, Rather, and Quite
Adjectives like these are used to modify another adjective:
The webinar will be very interesting.
These statistics are really worrying.
The customer was quite unhappy.
There are two ways to avoid these overused degree words. In some cases, you can simply remove them without changing the meaning of the sentence. More often, however, you can use a stronger adjective. Have a look at these alternatives to the above examples:
The webinar will be fascinating.
These statistics are disturbing.
The customer was unhappy.
In the first two, we replaced two adjectives with a single, more powerful one, making the sentences more dynamic and concise. In the third, the degree word quite weakened the impact of the sentence, so we simply removed it.
Quantity Words: Many, Few, and a Lot
These terms vaguely indicate an amount, but you can easily find more descriptive substitutes. Here are a few ideas to start you off:
● Instead of many or a lot of, try copious, myriad, plentiful, or slew.
● For a few, consider scattered, negligible, or rare.
Alternatively, if you know the exact number you’re alluding to, be specific (if appropriate). For example, “We have looked at a lot of other options” could be “We have looked at sixteen other options.” In this situation, using the exact figure adds authority and authenticity.
Unoriginal Words: New, Important, and Interesting
Unfortunately, some words are so overused that readers ignore them altogether. When your “important message” is competing with a hundred other “important messages,” you’ll have to come up with a term that stands out more. Important might be correct, but it gets used so much in business writing that its meaning is now diluted.
Here are our suggestions for swapping out some of those unoriginal words, but you’ll find plenty more by checking a thesaurus:
Find this useful?
Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.
● Important: vital, key, essential, crucial.
● New: fresh, radical, novel.
● Interesting:gripping, intriguing, engaging.
When you use less-familiar words like these, your writing immediately becomes more distinctive. However, be careful not to pick words that are too obscure. Readers should never have to reach for the dictionary, no matter how bodacious your writing!
Unnecessary Words: Absolutely, Completely, and Totally
Absolutely is used to add weight to an adjective. All too often, though, it’s used with adjectives strong enough to stand on their own. When you’re tempted to use this word, ask yourself if absolutely adds anything to the meaning. In most cases, the answer will be “no.” For example, if something is impossible, it can’t be achieved by any means, so to describe something as absolutely impossible is redundant because there’s no such thing as “slightly impossible.”
Completely and totally fall in the same category. In most cases, you can drop them without changing the meaning of the sentence. On other occasions, you should replace the modified word with something more descriptive:
The report is completely finished. ✘
The report is finished. ✓
The report is totally awesome. ✘
The report is accurate and beautifully presented. ✓
Watch out for other unnecessary words like actually, honestly, and definitely. Using these can imply that you’re trying to persuade the reader of something, which may lead them to question your integrity.
Uncertain Words: Think and Believe
When you preface a statement with I think or I believe, it creates doubt in the reader’s mind. The fact that you’re the writer indicates your agreement with the information. To add I think suggests uncertainty, while I believe implies that others might disagree.
These words (along with the phrase in my opinion) can therefore be dropped. They don’t need replacing—just get straight to the point!
Filler Words: Just, That, and Then
More often than not, these words serve no purpose other than to increase the word count. Consider these sentences:
Would you just take a look at these figures?
I was just wondering if you think that we should plan another campaign.
We will gather the data, then discuss it at the meeting, and then consider what to do next.
In all three examples, the words, just, that, and then can be omitted without altering the meaning.
This will nearly always be the case with just (unless you’re using it as a synonym for fair) and then. However, the word that is less straightforward because sometimes it’s needed for clarity. Generally, if that follows an attributive verb (e.g., say, think), it can be removed.
Overused, But Not Illegal
We hope this post helps you spot any overused words in your reports, presentations, emails, etc. By swapping them for stronger, more precise terms, your writing will be more engaging and effective. However, don’t feel like you have to cut them out altogether. It’s okay to include any of the words we’ve mentioned from time to time, as long as you’re confident you’ve got the best word for the job.
If you’d like any of your professional writing checked for errors, our proofreaders can help. As well as correcting spelling and grammar mistakes, our business writing experts will highlight areas that are unclear or repetitive. Why not try us out today by sending 500 words to proofread for free?