How to Get Rid of Dead Words in Writing

Every passage benefits from eliminating "dead" words that weaken its intent. Breaking the habit of using such words requires learning how to recognize them.

Dead words are found in padded sentences and passive voice constructions, and they include overused adverbs and vague qualifiers.

Once you learn how to identify them, cutting dead words will become second nature. With patience and practice, you'll get better at reducing the number of drafts needed to produce an engaging manuscript.

Steps to get rid of dead words in writing:

  • Avoid Passive Voice
  • Delete Irrelevant Expressions
  • Eliminate Vague Qualifiers
  • Shorten Lengthy Sentences
  • Use Fewer Adverbs

Avoid Passive Voice

Maintain an active voice in your writing​. This means the subject is performing the action that your verb describes, advises the American Management Association's column "Get Red of Those Pesky 'Weasel Words.'"

By contrast, a passive voice sentence's subject receives the action, but does not clarify who does what to whom. Put the emphasis on your subject to eliminate confusion.

Instead of saying, "Mistakes were made," rewrite the statement for active voice as "I made a mistake."

Delete Irrelevant Expressions

Edit sentences ruthlessly for redundant words and expressions that add nothing to the sentence meanings.

For example

"the ambitious employee" is a better option than "the employee with ambition," according to Purdue University's Online Writing Lab.

Similarly, weed out redundant word pairings that imply one another -- such as "true facts" -- and unnecessary modifiers that sound fine conversationally but only drag written sentences down.

That's why you would say, "Any dessert is fine," as opposed to its lengthier alternative, "Any particular type of dessert."

Eliminate Vague Qualifiers

Tightening sentences alone won't get rid of every dead word. Scrutinize rough drafts for so-called "weasel words" or vague modifiers that suggest uncertainty about what you're trying to convey.

Examples of these expressions include:

  • "as much as,"
  • "believe,"
  • "can,"
  • "could,"
  • "possibly,"
  • and "virtually"

Failure to purge weasel words is considered a signal of weak writing, as they soften a sentence's intended meaning. Find a stronger word or cut it from your text.

Shorten Lengthy Sentences

Keep subjects and verbs together to create stronger sentences, the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Science states in its writing tips.

For example, a weak writer might say, "The leaders of East Germany, who had always supported a more aggressive strategy toward the Allied presence in West Berlin, felt that the time was ripe to ask the Soviet Union to give the green light for decisive action."

Instead, place your strongest elements first by stating, "East German leaders had always itched for the chance to seal off West Berlin. Now they pleaded with Moscow to strike."

Use Fewer Adverbs

Minimize adverbs unless you're using them to convey a particular effect, advises contemporary author and poet Jessica Bell in her column for "Writer's Digest."

As Bell observes, adverbs are considered a common symptom of weak writing, because they don't commit the author to describe what's really happening.

To avoid this trap, ​focus on small details that you can describe without adverbs​. For example, instead of having a character "knock lightly," say, "She tapped on the door."

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