Getting Started Professional Development

Ban These 15 Words From Your Writing

Written by Miranda Pennington


Streamlined writing is an automatic way to present yourself as polished and professional.  The next time you write an important email, report, or even a quick note, check to see if you can delete any of the following before sending—your writing will be better for it.

1. That

“That” is a part of speech most people use without thinking. It’s often totally unnecessary! Here are 4 sentences using “that”—see which ones are totally acceptable without it!

1. A) “She said that she would be late.”

2. B) “That puppy is the cutest thing ever.”

3. C) “Did you hear about that explosion?”

4. D) “You should pick up the books that are on the floor”

Choices A and D can function perfectly well without “that” cluttering up their momentum. “You should pick up the books on the floor” and “She said she would be late” seem so light and airy now!

Also, stop using “that” to refer to people. “The people that piled out of the car”? No! “The people who piled out of the car.” Because they are people, car or no car.

2. Went

Sometimes “went” as in the past tense of “go” is the shortest distance between two points, but you also miss an opportunity to establish information about how whoever got wherever—did she race, fly, hurry, dawdle, drive, carom, or drift?

3. Honestly

I have to do a find and replace in my essays for “honestly” all the time—it falls under the heading of what I call “throat clearing” with my students. I use it as a moment to pause and then convey earnestness, but the thing is, what it actually suggests is that you haven’t been honest this whole time.

4. Absolutely

There is a time and a place for emphasis. But unless you’re writing marketing or publicity copy, you probably don’t need the EXTREME INSISTENCE of something being absolute.

5. Very

We use “very” to strengthen our intention, but it often winds up watering it down instead. Make your sentence stand on its own!

6. Really

Similarly, “really” gives an illusion of intensification without adding much meaning at all.

7. Amazing

The New York Mets are amazing. They “cause great surprise or sudden wonder” because for a long time they have been terrible at playing baseball and finally this year, they are good at it. Outside of Citifield, though, “amazing” is so overexposed that nothing is really that impressive. Certainly not impressive enough to earn the name.

8. Always

Whenever you work in absolutes (see “absolutely”) you are in a black or white zone. There’s no nuance in “always,” there’s no space for growth or revision. Unless you’re giving instructions or outlining procedure, give some wiggle room.

9. Never

I refer you to the above.

10. Literally

This is one of those words that started getting used for comedic effect and has taken over our lexicon. Did this actually happen? No? Is it a metaphor? Yes? Then why are we clinging to this mass illusion that so many things are actually happening?

11. Just

This is something women get hyper-criticized for using, when the truth is it weakens anyone’s writing to diminish their contribution by beginning with “I was just going to say…” Use “just” when you’re talking about fairness or impartiality, otherwise leave it in the drawer.

12. Maybe

Another one that women get extra criticized for, despite the chilly reception we often get when we make firm statements. If you’re sure, sound sure!

13. Stuff

I had a student in one of my classes announce her fantasy story was taking place in the Kingdom of Stuff, on Stuff Island. She’s 8. We can forgive her. Are you 8?

14. Things

Ditto “Stuff”

15. Irregardless

Put this in a lockbox at the bottom of the sea along with “supposably.”

It may take a while to (metaphorically) eliminate these words from your brain, but adding in an extra mental filter when you edit should help you sharpen your writing and improve your persuasiveness immediately. Cut out the filler, the throat-clearing, the circling around, and you’ll find you come through on the page with more clarity and staying power.

About the author

Miranda Pennington

Miranda K. Pennington is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared on The Toast, The American Scholar, and the Ploughshares Writing Blog. She currently teaches creative nonfiction for Uptown Stories, a Morningside Heights nonprofit organization. She has an MFA from Columbia University, where she has also taught in the University Writing program and consulted in the Writing Center.