There are over 170,000 words in the English language.
Yet most of us only use around 1,000 words in 89% of our everyday writing. We default to the same overused word choices over and over, which can make each new piece of writing sound much like the last.
While there’s value to plain language, we never want to be boring. Next time you write, do a search for any of these yawner words, and swap them out if you can.
Overused Words (and Some Spicier Options)
These are words that spring to mind without even thinking about them. If something is decent, it’s good. If it’s better than good, it’s great. If it’s original, it’s unique. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these words. But we’ve been given the gift of a rich and descriptive language. Let’s take advantage of it.
Great just might be the most blah superlative out there. We use great for evvvverything. Food is great. Confirming your dentist appointment is great. The finger painting by your three-year-old is great. We can do so much better. Like so:
Is there a more milquetoast word than good? If it were a vegetable, it would be canned peas. Blech. (Also, we should all strive to use the word milquetoast more.)
The word amazing, on its own, is a lovely word. It has a nice sound, and it means “causing great surprise or astonishment.” Unfortunately, it’s been used so much for things that are decidedly UN-amazing that it’s lost its oomph. Use one of these instead.
Hard is vague. What is hard about it? Is it confusing or complex? Strenuous or taxing? Are we talking mentally, physically, or emotionally hard? Dig in to what you really mean to find the right substitute.
The word unique has been used so much that it’s lost its uniqueness. What do you actually mean by unique? Is it truly one-of-a-kind? Is it unusual or rare? Is it the best in the industry?
Large can refer to length, width, height, area, weight, and more. Certain synonyms will have more heft, like massive or ample. Others indicate openness, like expansive or spacious.
- Brobdingnagian (you’ll probably never use this one but I just love it.)
Very and really just add emphasis to the word that follows. So it’s usually best to just find another word. Instead of very hungry, you’re famished. Instead of very tired, you’re exhausted. But if you must have a very/really substitute, here are some options.
Would you perk up if someone said, “Hey, this is important?”
Would you perk up if someone said, “Hey, this is crucial?”
In most instances, actually could be omitted. But if you need a word to signal that you’re about to drop a truth bomb, one of these could work.
- in reality
- in truth
I see beautiful a lot in event venue copy, used to describe wedding ceremony sites and sweeping views. The problem is that a chic hotel, a boho glamping site, and a rustic barn venue could all be described as beautiful. Create the vibe with words like these.
In general, adverbs like absolutely are best used in moderation. But if you must use a qualifier, you could try one of these stronger options.
Skip the Clichés
It’s far too easy to default to cliché, especially in professional writing. While these phrases may once have been clever, they’ve been used and re-used until their original meaning is obscured, and the reader is likely to skip right past them.
Unfortunately, the cliché’s ubiquity means it springs to mind immediately when you’re groping for the right words. These all-too-overused phrases water down your writing and make you sound like everyone else. We can do better than that.
So let’s not make lemonade out of lemons. Or take the tiger by the tail. Instead, let’s make stock out of scraps. Or try to lasso a tornado.
Context Matters…Only Say What You Mean
Choosing the right words is a writing skill that takes work. A word that is close to the one you want isn’t gonna cut it.
For example: perhaps I want to describe a historic event venue, but I don’t want to use the word “historic.” My Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (a phenomenal tool, do recommend) gives me the following options:
Those words apply more to historic events. Battles. Discoveries. Elections. So we have to keep looking. How about:
These may be closer to what I want, but it’s going to depend on the venue. Is it legendary? Or is it just…old?
Now we’re getting closer!
Spend a moment thinking about the primary meaning of each word before you dig into a thesaurus or online dictionary. We’re trying to make word magic here, not word salad.
Longer is Not Always Better
We do not need to utilize when we can use. Nor do we need to masticate when we can chew, or endeavor when we can try.
There is nothing wrong with these longer words. But depending on the tone and style of your writing, the simpler words are often the better choice—especially in copywriting, where clarity is everything.
Bookmark this post to refer back to it later! It will help put a little pizzazz on your page.
Or if you’d rather just outsource the wordy stuff, give me a holler.