Saturday, March 2, 2013

Throwaway Words

What’s the difference between good writing and text that puts audiences to sleep, or drives them to Angry Birds?
One major factor is the presence, or absence of unnecessary text. A lot of bad writing can be salvaged if you just get rid of the unnecessary words — what I call throwaway words.
  • In light of this
  • At this point
  • The following information ...
  • The information you requested is below
  • Note that
  • It is to be noted that

Those phrases can all be cut from any text. Try it — what’s left stands on its own and has more impact.
Those are just a few of the most common throwaway phrases. Everyone uses them. One difference between a good writer (or editor) and a poor one is that the good writer/editor recognizes these and throws them away before letting anyone else read the text.
There are other burdensome phrases that a good writer should replace with a single, punchier word:
  • In recent months — just write “recently.” Even better, specify when the observed phenomenon began: “Since September, ...”
  • The month of — February can be nothing but a month.
  • In a nutshell
  • At the end of the day — does this mean that the situation is different in the morning?
  • At a later date or time — write “later”
  • In the near future — write “soon”
  • With a view to — write about the goals, instead.

Often, bad writing is a result of trying to make something seem more important or prestigious than it is. Some of my favourite bamboozlers are:
-          Undertaking to do the following
-          On the ground
This phrase is supposed to mean “engaged in the situation about which we are talking,” but it’s been so overused, almost all meaning has been worn away.
It also can lead you into inadvertent humour, where you are the punch line. I remember working on a government news release several years ago, in a department staffed by people who loved to say “on the ground.” Someone wrote about sending money for airplane fuel so that organizations could deliver emergency food supplies. “This will ensure airplanes on the ground can reach the most critical areas,” read the release, or something like that.
I pointed out to the writer on that file: “Airplanes on the ground don’t need fuel. Airplanes in the air do.”
Yes, we can have a ridiculous argument about the correct semantics of that, but it still shows that your use of the most current catch-phrase can at least distract the audience from the important message, if not leave you open to ridicule.
-          As such a misused linking phrase
A stable IT system depends on the ability of its users to make informed decisions, particularly when adding functionality. As such, we are proposing the following changes."
In that sentence, "as such" doesnt make sense. "Therefore" is the right word.
Don't use phrases just because you once heard a smart person use it. You're smart; use your own words.

Avoid clichés like the plague
Using someone else’s words brings me to clichés. Clichés are words or phrases that have been so overused, they’re jokes. They make your writing, and therefore your thinking, seem derivative, unoriginal and therefore, unimportant — something no one has to read.
Wouldn’t you prefer having your audience believe they can’t afford to miss what you’ve written?
While most writers today know better than to use phrases like beating a dead horse, black as the Ace of Spades or nipped in the bud (or, worst of all, avoid that like the plague), yesterday’s clever new phrase has a way of turning into today’s cliché.
Here’s a challenge, oh writers — come up with some new catch-phrases to replace these:
-          Been there, done that
-          It’s now or never
-          That’s so random
-          Think outside the box
-          Push the envelope
-          snowpocalypse
-          fiscal cliff
-          from day one
Send your original ideas to Writers Get Together, and maybe we can provide a resource for managers working on their next motivational speech!
Good luck.
Scott Bury 
Scott Bury is an editor, journalist, novelist and blogger based in Ottawa, Canada. His first book, The Bones of the Earth, is available on Amazon, iBooks, Smashwords and other major e-book retailers. More of his writing can be found on his blog,

His next book, One Shade of Red, will be available in March, 2013.


  1. I confess using a certain cliche: Being somewhat Irish -at least my English is heavily influenced by that regional variance due to me living there for so long- I like to say (and write:"There you have it- in a nutshell!" I guess, once in a book it's allowed giving it some local flavor?

  2. It's really hard to stay away from a lot of these phrases when we write! But I agree with you if you are able to cut down on the "rambling" and stick to the direct quotes/phrases then you are ahead of the game. When you go to a blog that is jumbled with a thousand words it's hard to find the key points!