Kill your darlings: Words you can delete

The path to bad writing is paved with good intentions. Some words and phrases we use with one intention can do the opposite. Try binning these five, and see if you’re happier with how you come across.

1. Unfortunately

I usually find unfortunately all over the letters, emails and social media of companies who tend to receive loads of customer complaints. Putting unfortunately before bad news intends to soften the blow, but usually comes off as patronising.

[Our partners] say they don’t want to be recorded, so unfortunately we will have to respect their wishes.

It’s ‘unfortunate’ to respect someone’s wishes? What kind of monster are you?

Thank you for your application for a job at our firm. Unfortunately, you have been unsuccessful at this time.

You regret not appointing this candidate, or the candidate was unlucky? Either way, your recruitment process sounds like guess work.

But how do I deliver bad news gently?

Don’t apologise or bandy about, just say it.

A better response to an unsuccessful job applicant:

Thank you for applying for a job at our firm. Your application wasn’t successful this time, but we hope you’ll apply for another role with us soon.

Alternatively, is there a more positive way to frame it?

One of my clients had a statement like this on their website:

Unfortunately due to insufficient public donations, we have had to start charging for parking to help fund the costs of maintaining the bird sanctuary.

Here’s what I recommended:

Your parking fee helps funds our work for birds, like feeding and housing, vet care and improving visitor access.

As you might guess, complaints about the cost of parking at the bird sanctuary fell to almost none.

2. Very, extremely, especially, hugely, really

These kinds of words are called modifiers in grammar. We think they emphasise what we’re saying, but in reality they throw doubt. Deleting them is a neat trick to make writing feel more professional, honest and approachable.

Visiting our museum will be time especially well-spent is less convincing than Visiting our museum will be time well-spent.

I was very upset to find… sounds overemotional compared with I was upset to find…

Charles is very competent and extremely reliable makes Charles sound less competent and reliable than if you’d said, Charles is competent and reliable.

3. On a _______ basis

I learned this one from a lovely high court judge I once worked with. If you see the words ‘on a’ and ‘basis’ around another word — like on a daily basis, on a case-by-case basis — they’re not needed. For example:

We consider applications on a case-by-case basis.

can become

We consider applications case by case.

The second feels friendlier too.

4. That

That has many good uses, but it’s a word to notice and think about whether you need it.

See how without ‘that’, these phrases have the same meaning, but sound more crisp:

One writing principle that no one talks about is...

The manager said that her team could take the day off.

5. I think

I think, when spoken, can sound confident and sure, but often in writing it comes across as hesitant and doubting. Consider:

I think we should do some user testing.

versus

We should do some user testing.

We think our customers want an approachable and honest bank.

versus

Our customers want an approachable and honest bank.

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