All words are good words. Some, however, are overused without adding value to what you write. As a result, they reduce the readers’ interest, make text seem redundant, and cause the writer to appear amateurish.
We have created a list of 10 overused words, based on the documents we have edited over the last 5 years. We don’t recommend that you remove these words from your writing. Instead, we recommend that you become aware of how often you use them and that you revise your documents to limit their use.
When writers are not sure about the subjects of their sentences, they will often use this word as the subject. This results in weak writing. (For advice on correcting this problem, see our article “Where Is There?”)
Example: “There was no one at home.” This can be revised as “No one was at home.”
Writers often use this word when referring to general or reoccurring situations. “You” rarely refers to the reader and should be avoided.
Example: “Our grandmother was nice. She always gave you candy.” This can be revised as “Our grandmother was nice. She always gave us candy.”
Although “if” is a fine word, it is overused by writers trying to describe options and thought processes.
Example: “If she took the bus, she wouldn’t have time to stop by the grocery store.” This can be revised as “Taking the bus would leave her too little time to stop by the grocery store.”
Readers realize that actions can occur at the same time, which is what the word “when” indicates. Thus, “when” is usually unnecessary.
Example: “When she opened the door, she saw blood on the floor.” This can be revised as “She opened the door and saw the blood on the floor.” Some writers use “when” to describe actions that cannot occur at the same time, as in “When she woke up, she made coffee.” Actually, she first wakes up and then makes the coffee. This can be revised as “She woke up and made the coffee.”
We once worked on a book in which the author used this word repeatedly to describe the timing of actions, often 3 or 4 times in one paragraph.
Example: “He was shouting ‘Follow me!’ as he ran down the road.” This can be revised as “He ran down the road shouting ‘Follow me!’ “
Mark Twain made this comment about using “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.” “Very” is a crutch for finding the right word to describe what you mean to say. Find the right word.
Example: “He was very old.” This can be revised as “He was ancient.”
Also, in this example, you can simply write, “He was old,” and then provide text to further explain what you mean by “old.” For example, you could write, “He was old. He walked hesitantly, knowing that his brittle bones would surely break were he to stumble over an unseen obstacle.”
Generally, this word can be removed without changing the meaning of a sentence. Anything that is true is also really true.
Example: “He was really nervous about speaking in public.” This can be revised as “He was nervous about speaking in public.” To show a greater degree, use a different word, as in “He was panicky about speaking in public” or “Public speaking scared him.”
8. Am/Is/Are/Was/Were (“to be” verbs)
Action verbs are always preferable to state-of-being verbs. Use words that describe the action occurring. Rather than saying what something/someone is, show the reader what something/someone does.
Example: “I am envious of her success.” This can be revised as “I envy her success.”
Example: “She was dressed in leather chaps and a flannel shirt.” This can be revised as “She wore leather chaps and a flannel shirt.”
See #7. “So” is also overused as a conjunction.
Example: “Her face was inches from his own, so he leaned forward and kissed her.” This can be revised as “Her face was inches from his own. He leaned forward and kissed her.”
This word is overused to provide explanations. To fix this, use the word “and” with action verbs.
Example: “He wanted to go to the fair because his friends would be there.” This can be revised as “He wanted to go to the fair and meet with his friends.”
Example: “I want to leave because I am tired.” This can be revised as “I’m tired and want to leave.”