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5 Commonly Used Phrases That Weaken Your Writing

by | Dec 18, 2020

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?

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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