My high school creative writing teacher (a shout out to Ms. Grant!) once told me to stay away from the adjective beautiful because it is overused and became meaningless as a result. I’ve thought about her advice numerous times over the years, and as an editor, I’ve seen firsthand how writers fill pages with empty expressions. It’s something we all do, but if we can target the worthless words, we’ll do a better job at effectively communicating.
Have you ever experienced that moment where common words disappear from your mind? It happens to me more times than I’d like to admit, and it leads to me ask questions like, “Where is the thing that was over there?” Understandably, this query leaves people confused because nothing of substance is being said. Well, according to Merriam-Webster.com, my question is perfectly appropriate given that thing means “an object whose name is not known or stated.”
But, wait, it gets worse. Thing also means “an object, animal, quality, etc., of any kind.” So what does this describe? Everything. Literally every thing. There are hundreds of synonyms for thing, which adequately explains why the term pops up so often. When any word is diluted as much as thing is, we need to help it take a backseat for a while by expressing ourselves in more specific ways.
Instead of: Get that thing out of my car.
Try: Get that slimy snake out of my car.
If you’re a perceptive reader, you noticed that I just quoted a dictionary example that contained etc. Now that we can put that behind us, I still think the word has to go, even if it’s good enough for one of the world’s most popular reference guides.
A few weeks ago I wrote the article Writing Gimmicks You Need to Stop Using and shared that and more does a poor job of being instructive because it’s merely a filler phrase. The same goes with etc. Part of the problem is that etc. is often used incorrectly; however, even when written grammatically, it is still a fluffy word that adds little to the conversation.
Instead of: I have many pets, such as dogs, cats, etc.
Try: I have many pets, including dogs, cats and amphibians.
This is right up there with thing. Good ol’ Merriam-Webster says that stuff is “used to speak in a general way about something.” See, even the dictionary says this one is generic. Most of us have a habit of overusing words anyway. When we do so with naturally vague language, the word becomes bland, so what’s the point?
Instead of: Our crafters are available to teach you some interesting stuff about sewing.
Try: Our crafters are available to teach you interesting sewing techniques.
Okay, I’m cheating a bit with quality because it doesn’t inherently deserve a spot on this list; however, it’s a representation of words such as unique, wonderful, passionate, hardworking, driven, and every other phrase that you will repeatedly find on most landing pages and resumes. While these are definitely overworked, they don’t need to be nixed completely, as long as you use them responsibly. Otherwise, these expressions end up losing their power or sounding insincere.
Instead of: Money Mania call center employees offer quality customer service.
Try: Money Mania call center employees offer an open ear and customized guidance.
When writing, try to avoid generic words. Choose a more creative (and interesting) form of communication instead.
What generic words/phrases bother you? Share below!