Writers are notorious for their love of words. Because of this, we have a hard time targeting certain words as enemies. If you don’t take the time to dig deep in your manuscript, searching for enemy words, you risk weakening your story. This robs the reader of your full potential and they may decide to put your book down.   

Watch out for empty words in your writing. The word ‘was’ is a sign of the dreaded passive voice which places a distance between you and the reader. Sometimes ‘was’ is unavoidable but use it often and the story becomes diluted and boring. Look for stronger verbs that impart real meaning.

Look for crutch words. These are the words writers fall back on when we can’t find a better way to express what’s going on. This often occurs when we dilute the force of what we’re trying to say, but the effect usually muddles the story.

Another commonly overused word is ‘very’, so watch out for it. To help you determine which words are your crutches, go back through the draft of the last thing you finished. Read through the pages with an eye for frequently used words, especially in the same paragraph. Make a list of the words you use often. Once you begin to target these words will start to stand out. This doesn’t mean you can’t use them but limit the amount of playing time they have in your story.   

The most common enemy words are adverbs. Ninety percent of the time they are unnecessary. The awful thing about most adverbs is you can cut them without changing the structure of your sentence.

Here’s one example. Jack nodded slightly. Talk about wishy-washy. Jack either nodded or he didn’t.

Here’s another. Cindy talked excitedly.

If you want us to see Cindy talk excitedly add action not adverbs. We tend to add adverbs thinking they will give extra impact, only to discover it’s weak writing. Comb your first drafts searching for adverbs to cut. Save the best ones for when you really need them, and they will have a bigger impact.

Here’s a list of 10 commonly overused words or phrases. Go back and see how you can delete them. If you can’t, figure a way to rewrite the sentence and make the story tighter. 

1. In order to

This is one of the flabbiest phrases I see in writing. People use it, but not one sentence stops working if ‘in order to’ is deleted. Replace with ‘to’ which has the same meaning. This one small change will make the statement clearer.

2. Really

If you’re saying someone is ‘really’ tall, you’re missing the mark. How tall are they? Readers want you to show them, not tell them. With that in mind, swap this vague term for a more accurate descriptor. If you can’t be more descriptive, delete the word.

3. A lot

‘A lot’ is similar to ‘really’ in terms of vagueness. Saying something is ‘a lot’ different than it used to be robs your readers of an experience. While they understand something has changed, they don’t know what. Provide more specific information so the reader can make good decisions and connect with you on a deeper level.

4. Just

The only time ‘just’ has a place in your content is when you’re talking about something being ‘fair.’ For example, ‘The trial was just.’ Uses of ‘just’ to imply something small or inefficient (e.g., ‘She just couldn’t take the heat anymore.’) doesn’t add anything. In most cases, you can remove this word without affecting the sentence’s meaning.

5. That

‘That’ may seem like an inoffensive word, but it’s usually not necessary. For example, “These are the best pair of shoes that I’ve ever worn” could be changed to, “These are the best pair of shoes I’ve ever worn.”

6. Then

‘Then’ makes your writing stammer, which is the opposite of what you want. To smooth your text, remove the word whenever the sentence makes sense without it. And don’t start sentences with ‘then’ because it makes them clunky and difficult to read.

7. So

‘So’ is another word that doesn’t do much. Despite this, many people use it, particularly as a transition or explanatory word. Delete the word and in most cases, your readers will thank you.

8. Got

‘Got’ is a lazy word because it doesn’t tell people much about how or why someone got something. Instead, use words that add power such as ‘obtained’ and ‘earned.’

9. Often

‘Often’ teases readers by telling them something happens frequently without being clear. Replace ‘often’ with specific descriptions such as ‘five times a week’ or ‘every year.’

10. Very

Perhaps the laziest descriptive word of all, ‘very’ can be deleted without taking away the intended meaning of what you’re trying to convey. Go back and replace the combination with a single, stronger adjective. For example, instead of saying ‘very beautiful,’ use ‘gorgeous.’ Replace ‘very intelligent,’ with ‘brilliant.’

When editing, circle or highlight all the empty words in red. Try rewriting those sentences with stronger verbs. This forces you to restructure the sentence making it sound more active.

Circle or highlight all the adverbs you find in yellow. Check how the sentences sound without them. If the meaning isn’t changed, cut them. Be sure to read aloud. By reading out loud, you hear the flow instead of relying on your writer’s voice alone.

When you finish, you will end up with a cleaner, more efficient prose. Something your readers and editors will both enjoy.

Happy writing.


James Glass retired from the United States Navy after 22 years of service. After retiring, he exchanged his rifle for a pen. He and his family moved back to the Florida Panhandle. He’s married and has two children. James is also the President of the Panhandle Writer's Group.

7 thoughts on “Targeting Enemy Words

  1. Jack Henderson

    Now I have to edit out the bad words.

    1. James

      LOL. You are not alone, Jack. Me too.

  2. ronasewell

    You are correct. I try to eliminate these words’

  3. Gaylene B Corben

    You are ‘quite’ right, James 🙂

    1. James

      Thank you, Gaylene. I try to share my knowledge and experience with other writers.

  4. Peggy Lovelace Ellis

    May I add my nemesis–to? The “old school” belief is to limit any word to three uses per page. There’s a challenge!

    1. James

      That’s great advice, Alice. I’ll add that to the list.

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