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

When I work with companies with complaint problems, I usually find this word all over their letters, emails and social media like a rash. The intention seems to be that using unfortunately before news the reader might not want to hear will show care or soften the blow.

Try removing it. You may find the relationship with the reader improves. Despite the intention of using unfortunately, readers find it patronising and insincere, and they’re right to. Here are some real-world examples.

[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? Your recruitment process sounds slap-dash.

But how do I deliver bad news gently?

As with face-to-face communications, trying hard to seem nice often backfires. What you need to say may not be great news, but it’s likely reasonable. So, 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 again soon.

You could also consider whether there’s a more positive way to think of the bad news.

One client 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 goes toward our bird conservation work, like feeding and housing birds, 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

Deleting words like very and extremely is a neat trick to make your writing feel more professional, honest and approachable. These words don’t do what we think they should — instead, they throw doubt.

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

While in spoken language I think doesn’t necessarily convey doubt — it depends on tone — it comes across as doubting when read. And with writing, anything that doesn’t need to be there weakens your message. Consider:

I think we should do some user testing.

We should do some user testing.

We think our customers want an approachable and honest bank.

Our customers want an approachable and honest bank.

The second examples sound stronger and more trustworthy.

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