5 Commonly Used Phrases That Weaken Your Writing

5 Commonly Used Phrases That Weaken Your Writing

Most writers use too many words. That sounds silly, because it’s our literal job to use words. But too often we throw them on the page by the bucketful, like amateur painters trying to recreate a Jackson Pollock. Your canvas of brown splotches affirms how intentional Pollock’s seemingly casual flicks of the brush actually were.

This is how carefully good writers choose words — or, more likely, cut words from a first draft.

Wordiness clutters sentences and obfuscates your message.

5 ways to say more with less

Conciseness is especially important in blog writing and social media, but it’s nothing new. You might remember William Strunk’s 1918 words: “Vigorous writing is concise.”

That sentiment is behind the slashing you face under a copy editor’s pen. Avoid the bloodbath and delight your editor with these tips to slim and strengthen your copy before you submit.

1. A number of

I see too many of these in instructional writing. My job as an editor is to comment every time, “How many?” Too often, a writer uses this phrase because they don’t know the “number” in question.

Then don’t mention it. Your copy will be better if you can be specific, but when you can’t, don’t waste words showcasing what you don’t know.

  • You’ll face a number of doors. → You’ll face three doors.
  • The police detained a number of suspects. → The police detained suspects, but haven’t reported how many.
  • You have a number of options. → You have options.

2. In order to 

I haven’t met an “in order to” I can’t cut to “to” without changing the meaning of a phrase. 

I hardly know what it means and suspect “in order” hitched itself to infinitives in one of those professions that convinces its practitioners bloated copy sounds smart, like law or academia or the people who teach you how to write a cover letter.

  • In order to start, we’ll need… → To start, we need… 
  • Go to the website in order to officially apply. → Go to the website to apply. → Apply on the website.
  • In order to determine the aggregate volume… → To determine the aggregate volume… 

3. The fact that

You can often lob this phrase from a sentence and be done with it, but sometimes you’ll need to rewrite. 

“The fact that” isn’t incorrect, and it may feel like your only option, but it’s kind of a limp noodle of a phrase, and I think you can do better. Your writing deserves a farfalle or cavatappi — ingredients with the strength to stand up to sausages and creams.

  •  The fact that you’re reading this means… → Your reading this means…
  • I didn’t like the fact that she stood up. → I didn’t like that she stood up.
  • Given the fact that most people aren’t rich… → Most people aren’t rich, so… 

4. -ing verbs

You rarely need the progressive* tense of a verb. Try simple present tense first; it’ll usually convey the same information in fewer syllables.

  • Many families are spending 50% of their income on housing. → Many families spend… 
  • It doesn’t work when you’re standing. → It doesn’t work when you stand.
  • The law, enabling workers to receive an extra $600… → The law, which enables… 

*It’s also called “continuous,” but I like the option that makes it sound like the verbs support universal health care. I Googled the name to sound smart in this newsletter. Did it work?

5. When it comes to

I feel like this phrase came from a clever writer charging by the word. Its sole purpose seems to be to lengthen otherwise concise sentences — or maybe to insert a search keyword with awkward phrasing? Whatever the reason, don’t.

You can usually cut whatever clause this phrase is attached to. (And try harder if you have to work in that keyword.)

  • When it comes to writing a book, motivation is hard. → Finding motivation to write a book is hard.
  • I’m not sure what to tell you when it comes to Mary. → I’m not sure what to tell you about Mary.
  • When it comes to finding the treasure, you’ll want to go to the X. → Go to the X to find the treasure.

This article was originally published in Notes newsletter, a monthly selection of pet peeves, warnings, advice, secrets and pro-tips for pitching, writing and — above all — keeping editors happy.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Filed Under: Craft

12 comments

  • Peter says:

    Your 4th item (ing) has always been an issue for me. I write in the past tense, not present, so not sure how this suggestion would work for me?

  • Kenil Vasani says:

    Good reminders. Thank you. We slip into these without thinking. Two more that I never want to hear again, “eye watering” and “nosebleed seats”. The first is used when something is very expensive, and the second when someone or something is located at a great height or distance. We are lazy, and reach for whatever is handy.

  • Here is one phrase that drives me bonkers, although it seems to be more often said than written. “Not for nothin'”. I want to shout and stomp when I hear that. I think it means absolutely nothin’. It is used when you don’t know what else to say, and you just want a little pause in your tirade. Jeez! I just want to slap the person upside the head when I hear that phrase.

  • Douglas says:

    “In order to” clarifies meaning in some contexts. Compare “Ask the teacher to leave the classroom” with “Ask the teacher in order to leave the classroom.”

  • I like the ing suggestion. I’ll pay closer attention.

  • Leslie Bennett says:

    I belong to a critique group, and they often discuss the examples you gave in your article. As a storyteller, I have trouble with your fourth one, 4. -ing verbs. For some reason, this has become a common complaint. When they are removed, it can cause a writer to become repetitive or stilted as they dig for alternate words. It is often difficult to be clear and concise when the words are intentionally deleted. There is a happy medium. In writing circles, the pendulum has swung to the extreme for removal. Even in this article complaining about them, you will see that they have been used numerous times.

  • Bonnie says:

    Excellent advice, which I try to fail and fall, but the reminder is quite helpful. Thank you!

  • Jackie Wilson says:

    I rarely leave comments on blogs. But then, I rarely come across writers as little qualified to give other writers advice on ‘good writing’ as this young lady. I’m surprised I didn’t come across this on Medium. It certainly detracts from the credence I gave thus far to THIS website.
    Where to start? She means ‘lop’, not ‘lob’. At least, that is what the context tells me.
    “I didn’t like that she stood up” is quite simply grammatically wrong, sounds like a 12-year-old’s writing and is **precisely** the reason why occasionally clunky phrases such as “the fact that” exist.
    I don’t think I’ve ever come across a phrase as stuffed with redundancies as “it’s kind of a limp noodle of a phrase”. It’s illustrative, thanks to the cooking metaphor that follows. But still limp, slithery and bland in itself.
    I’m not actually a proponent of the maxim, “ALL writing should be concise and strip away wordiness”, myself. Sometimes, writing can profit from twirls and styles should adapt themselves to the purpose of the piece.
    But as a piece on ‘concise’ writing, this is a singular failure.

  • Right. Also complex sentences with a because, 2 buts and an and is not a good read. Making simple sentences can reduce maybe 2 clauses and make it crispy.

  • Julia says:

    Good reminders. Thank you. We slip into these without thinking. Two more that I never want to hear again, “eye watering” and “nosebleed seats”. The first is used when something is very expensive, and the second when someone or something is located at a great height or distance. We are lazy, and reach for whatever is handy.

  • Margaret Toman says:

    Verbal Pet Peeves.
    Redundancies:
    Oftentimes
    Join together
    Unite as one
    Actual fact
    End result
    Free gift
    Untrue lies
    Remunerative pay
    Redo it again

    Other teeth gnashers:
    Using the noun “fun” as an adjective, as in “fun party”
    Inappropriate use of “tons”, as in “tons of fun”.
    “You guys”
    The word “like” interjected every few words, and often at the beginning of sentences.
    “Orientate” – Whaaat?

  • Katharine says:

    I always heard advice to “write like you talk”.
    That type of writing certainly is not acceptable, today.
    I often told my advisors, “Ah tawk lack a Arkansaw hillbilly,” to help them realize how lame such advice is. They were not amused.
    Thanks for this lesson!

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