Abraham Lincoln wrote the most famous speech in American history. He also was a noted vampire slayer.
Coincidence? Children may wish it so. But tough-minded communicators know that the practice of cleaning up one’s copy goes hand in hand with wielding axes against the undead.
Writers must be willing to kill for the greater good of humankind. We must destroy those vampire words (and phrases) that suck the life out of our prose.
Ali Hale at Copyblogger notes that E.B. White recognized the dangers of words like rather, very, little, and pretty decades ago, although the nearsighted writer mistook them for “leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”
No, sir; the problem is far worse than a few freshwater annelids. “With the Internet making writers and publishers of us all, those little words aren’t just leeches: they’re full-grown vampires,” Copyblogger writes. “And they need to be stopped.”
Garlic cloves and blinding daylight are mere trifles against these verbal apparitions. Only the blood-red ink of an editor’s pen can send them to their graves.
We asked communicators, writers and Chicago-area exorcists for their suggestions. True, every word exists for a reason. But an overreliance on the following suggests it’s time to summon your inner Abe Lincoln.
Vampire slayer Janella Griggs, who by day is an account executive and copywriter with Cunningham Group, has done battle with this specter.
“Either it is or it isn’t,” she writes. “And when someone writes ‘somewhat unique,’ that irritates me to no end. … Write with passion and purpose and confidence, not noncommittal words like ‘somewhat.'”
2. There is (or are, was or were).
Back away slowly if these words appear frequently in a passage. Look for fang marks on the writer or speaker’s greenish neck.
Bank of America’s CEO once used this phrase to deny that his firm needed to raise more money due to problems with mortgage investors.
He unwittingly revealed his status as a Transylvania native when he said, “There is no capital raise needed here.” A mortal would have said, “We don’t need to raise capital.”
Besides, wouldn’t a real banker care about economy, as in economy of words? Consider:
Vampires: There are needless words that suck the life out of our prose.
Mortals: Needless words suck the life out of our prose.
3. Although, while and whereas as sentence-starters.
Sometimes we must back into a thought with although, just as truckers reverse a rig down a cramped alley to a loading bay. But if these sentence starters are overused, the result is as tedious as watching the trucker keep backing up, pulling forward, and backing up again, or so Bright Hub might argue. The same is true of whereas and while.
A vampire hunter won’t hesitate to grab an ax and chop out such phrases. Rearrange the thought. These sentences are the domain of undead communicators who tend to eschew concretes, like this:
Vampires: While I undertook advance measures to keep my colleagues alert during my presentation, my listeners still showed a discourteous lack of interest.
Mortals: I spiked the orange juice with No-Doz, but my presentation still put everyone to sleep.
4. Literally, actually, basically, and arguably .
Ghosts vs. vampires: now that’s a war we’d like to see—at least if the ghosts were on our side. Ghosts tend to be the spirit of loved ones, can pass through walls, are unsusceptible to vampire bites, and are known for both eloquence and pithiness (“Mark me“).
Luckily, the ghosts have got our back. We queried Dan Gerstein, president of Gotham Ghostwriters, who warned that younger writers are especially prone to overuse literally and actually. One of his ghosts, business author Brian Solon, added basically, and others are citing arguably.
“Both of these words have their place in select circumstances as signifiers,” Gerstein writes, “but too often they are injected unnecessarily for emphasis, and wind up having the opposite effect the writer/speaker intended.”
Note that many other prose-weakening adverbs would find a home under point No. 4.
5. Leverage and optimize.
Vampire slayer and “communications strategista” Justina Chen warns of these bloodsucking terms.
“The most deadening of terms in any writing—corporate or creative—have got to be techno-jargon and business-speak,” she writes. “Spare me the ‘leverage’ and ‘optimize’ and superhighway of meaningless acronyms. Give customers and employees stories and telling details instead. Create terms. Play with language so what you’re saying is fresh and memorable.”
This seldom serves any purpose whatsoever.
Not everything is what it appears to be, and seems is a way of hedging our bets. But it also drinks the blood of the surrounding words. Be bold. Just say it is.
8. Throat-clearing phrases like indeed, in fact and to be sure.
Rob Reinalda, the executive editor at Ragan Communications, is known as a man who strangles vampires with his bare hands. It is rumored that he keeps a stake in his sock to drive through the hearts of writers who use these throat-clearing phrases, along with lastly, that being said, and in my personal opinion (as opposed to your impersonal opinion?).
Reinalda gets a dangerous look in his eye whenever he encounters the mutant clone the thing is, is.
Like all of us here, he has been known to show up in blood-stained clothing after a night of vampire hunting and zombie blasting. Don’t push him.
So what’s the solution for your prose? One writer tells us to use auto-correct to highlight the vampires in our copy. He would have you automatically mark words like this: *whatever*. Then you can search for them and come up with alternatives. To each his own.
Better yet, just learn to identify the vampire words in your own copy. And keep your doors and windows bolted at night.
Follow Russell Working on Twitter @RussellWorking. This story first ran on PR Daily in June 2011.