5 words that always get my red pencil

red pencilPart of my current job is to proofread copy for marketing materials like brochures and sell sheets, many of which are used to advertise technical science courses. I’ve always been a somewhat ruthless editor (dating back to my college newspaper days when I did actually use red pencils, and reporters would groan when they realized they needed to run their copy past me before heading out for the evening) but I’ve learned lately that you need to pick your battles. Nonetheless, here’s a list of my least favorite word choices (and I would love it if people would stop using them!)

1. “In order.” Unless you’re counting out specific steps for something, you don’t need it. And why would you need to point out your steps are in order anyway? (Would you actually give someone steps out of order?)

Here’s an example:

“This exercise will demonstrate your ability to read technical jargon in order to find out if you’re a good candidate for this job.”

If you remove the “in order,” the sentence meaning remains the same, with a smaller word count!

2. The overuse of “very.” Very is an adjective and an adverb that is usually unnecessary. Sure, we use “very” when we speak (and many of the things we write we aim to be conversational), but it’s not needed. A former boss once told me that if you have to saturate all of your copy with adjectives (“very” being a common offender), then you need to improve your writing skills.

3. “Expert” and “expertise.” Now, this is a tough one. We all would like to consider ourselves an expert at something, but if you’re writing a biography and state that you have 30 years of experience writing advertising copy, do you really need to state that you’re a writing expert? If you’ve worked in advertising for that long and people don’t trust your writing skills, you’ve got some problems.

4. “Key,” in reference to things like “key steps” or “key objectives.” When I think of “key,” I think of the object that opens my car door. I realize that some people might use “key” instead of “important” because it’s shorter, but when you’re talking about the steps to complete an equation, for example, aren’t they all important? (Would you give someone a list of steps to complete a procedure that aren’t actually necessary?)

5. This is a phrase, but “Have an Opportunity.” Example: “You will have an opportunity to talk with a therapist about your problem.” Why not just say, “You can talk with the therapist about your problem”? I realize that “opportunity” might sound more grandeur, but these days, we’re fighting (literally) for every second we can keep a reader’s attention span before that person clicks elsewhere (or tosses your direct mail piece in the trash). Keep it short. Readers trust copy that sounds more honest.

This is just the short list, (and I guarantee I’ll offend even my own writing rules by using one of these or letting it slip by in edits) but I think it’s always helpful to step back and take a look at what you can do to make your writing even more succinct.


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