Editing Tips- Article 5: Meaningless Words

Sometimes we think we are saying something, but we really aren’t. Terms like help, make, and even show don’t show anything.

Yes we all know what those words mean..or do we?

Resumes are notorious for mundane, nondescript, and sometimes falsifying word choices. Consider the following items in a resume:

  • Coordinated yearly fundraiser
  • Helped students learn how to read
  • Managed office supply inventory

I hear your frustration: But that’s what I did!

I’m not saying you didn’t do these things. I am saying you aren’t being clear about what, exactly, you did.

Take the word coordinate. On one end of the spectrum, a coordinator may lead a large project with a lot of pieces and people being balanced. On the other end, a coordinator simply means being a personal lackey to the manager or director, doing the menial tasks. But if you are specific:

  • Planned, budgeted, and evaluated yearly fundraiser

Now the employer knows exactly what you are capable of (though details with numbers where possible should also be included).

Helping students could mean you read to them, you listened, you instructed, evaluated, developed lesson plans, curriculum, programming…Show me what you did!

Managing office supply inventory ranges from keeping track of supplies on a spreadsheet (or worse, a piece of paper) to quarterly budget projections including significant changes in operations.

Be specific, be clear, and be honest.

And be active! Coordinate, help and manage are so passive. You can do all that just by sitting in a rolly chair, looking at someone else do the work. But if you are budgeting, that’s doing something!

Some industries (or genre, if we are extending this topic to other types of writing) have specific terms that are universally understood, even if they seem mundane. Project Management, for instance, refers to a specific and detailed methodology for problem solving. The words taken out of context, however, are vague.

Eliminating meaningless words roots itself in the “show, don’t tell” rule. But show is a terrible word for rounding out the meaning of your ideas. Many people think “show, don’t tell” means, “He was angry and cussed him out.”

Showing would actually look more like, “He sucked in a strong breath of air, his face turned red, and he began yelling words that would make my mother faint.”

But it doesn’t have to be that complex. You can simply use a more descriptive word.

  • The milk smelled bad. -> The milk smelled spoiled.
  • The man was angry. -> The bartender was incredulous.
  • Ice cream is good on a hot summer day. -> Ice cream is refreshing on a hot summer day.

In class  I turned two students back-to-back and had them both jump. Every student jumped differently, and when we described their jumps, words like leap, skip, hop, bound were far more illustrative of what was actually going on.

A little more thinking, a little more imagination, and you can find your writing is much more powerful and efficient.

I recommend creating a checklist of  commonly used meaningless words to look for. For starters:

  • Good, better, best, great, fantastic, awesome, amazing (emphasis does not add meaning)
  • Bad, worse, worst, terrible, horrible, (ditto)
  • Went, walked, ran
  • Said, spoke, told
  • Like, love, adore

When you replace meaningless words with more descriptive ones, don’t call it quits. Be prepared to show through description, example, evidence.

But a word of warning: Stay away from adverbs. And if you aren’t sure what adverbs are, do some research. They are cheap ways of saying what you really want to say.

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