Eliminate Trick Words in Your Writing

Halloween is tomorrow! Sugar fiends rejoice! In the spirit of the holiday, I present you with this communication treat:

Eliminate trick words in your writing that undermine your message.

A few examples of trick words are:

  • It. “It” is a pronoun, and a lesser caliber stand-in than he, she or they because it is Ghosts-300x225too often used as a nondescript, vague filler word (the Cousin Itt of pronouns?). Condition yourself to ask “What is it?” when you see it used, and then replace it with your answer instead!
  • Some/any. “Some” and “any” (and their close relatives: “many” and “so many”) are qualifiers. Qualifiers are good at strengthening a statement when they provide details or emphasis – when they are specific – which “some” and “any” ain’t. Some of my favorite Halloween treats are Snickers and Almond Joys. Remove “some of” in that sentence to create a stronger, more definitive statement. (You Almond Joy lovers need all the help you can get!)
  • Still. At its best, “still” lends authority and continuity. At its worst, “still” undercuts and insults. Me, yesterday: A witch costume is still creative and fun. My 15-year-old daughter’s reply: Maybe for you.
  • But. “But” is a great word to illustrate contrast. Not this, but that. Avoid using “but” as a transition word between statements or phrases because it negates anything you said beforehand. I really like your idea of going to a haunted house with your friends, but do you have enough money to pay for it? Think of “but” as a giant eraser that wipes out the sincerity of the first half of your message. How to avoid “but”? Break the sentence into 2 sentences, and eliminate the “but.”
  • However. Also a contrast word. Really just a bigger “but.”
  • Basically. Like a box of raisins is to a Heath Bar, “basically” is a filler that conveys: I would like to have a stronger argument for this point, but I ran out of time to articulate what it would be. (P.S. What is it?)

Be safe this Halloween, and always in your writing and communication.

Special thanks, and a full-sized Dark Chocolate Milky Way, to smart communicators Patti Johnson, Emily Bennington and Kerry Rustin for their inspiration and input on trick words!

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults, a consultancy that guides organizations and individuals to “start the wave” of change. Heather and the team have advised major clients including PepsiCo, McKesson, Microsoft, Frito-Lay, Hitachi Consulting and many others on how to realize results through people. Contact her at hnelson@people-results.com.