English Composition 1
"Words, Words, Words"
Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Hamlet hates Polonius, so Hamlet is most likely being sarcastic in this passage as he responds to Polonius' question about what he is reading. For our purposes, though, we can use the quotation to highlight a fact: words are the most basic component of your writing. When people read your writing, they are of course reading your words, so the words you choose can make you a strong writer or a weak writer. Below are a few suggestions for avoiding common weaknesses in word choice.
(1) Avoid References to the First Person
I think that
I believe that
I feel that
in my opinion
It is my belief that
It is my opinion that
Why should you avoid the first person?
In general, the more formal the writing situation, the more you should avoid referring to yourself. Imagine, for instance, that you are writing a research paper in which you explain the discovery and development of medicines to fight childhood diseases. In such an essay, it would most likely be best to avoid using "I think," "I believe," or other first-person expressions. What would these expressions add to the paper? Similarly, imagine that you are writing an essay in which you argue for a new way that the United States should manage the social security system. Use of "I think" or "in my opinion" in such an essay could make you sound less confident, as if you are suggesting to readers that these are only your ideas and that readers do not need to believe them. If your purpose is to argue your position and to change the minds of your readers, though, you should sound as confident and as well informed as possible.
To some extent, avoiding the first-person ("I," "me," "we," "us," "my") simply has become a convention of formal writing, and using the first-person tends to add an informal tone to your essays. Also, though, the first-person phrases listed above (and others) are "wordy": they add nothing that is not already implied. Readers will assume that the "beliefs" expressed in your essay will be your beliefs, so why do you need to tell readers this information?
(2) Avoid Wordy Expressions
"Wordiness," or unnecessary words, is usually caused by the use of common expressions. They are so common, in fact, that we can make a list of them. Below is such a list. In parentheses next to each wordy expression is the more concise way to convey the same idea. Notice that there is no difference in meaning between the wordy expression and the more concise one.
due to the
fact that (because)
Why should you avoid
Such expressions are either redundant (as in "blue in color" or "empty void") or are a "wordy" way of expressing a simple idea (as when someone uses "at this point in time" to express the idea of "now"). Other wordy expressions are just plain unnecessary, such as "in this world." When you use wordy expressions, readers have to dig through the verbiage to get to your point.
Don't be misled by the frequent use of these expressions by politicians and other manipulators of language. Wordy expressions are an easy way to sound intelligent to the uninformed, but an informed listener or reader can see right through these empty phrases.
By the way, "the fact that" is the most commonly used wordy expression: you should always try to eliminate the expression from your writing.
3) Avoid Use of the Passive Voice
Passive: The cookies were eaten by me.
Active: I ate the cookies.
Passive: It is believed by everyone that Joe
Active: Everyone believes that Joe left.
Passive: The poem was written by Robert Frost in
Active: Robert Frost wrote the poem in 1948.
When you use the active voice, you say that somebody did something. When you use the passive voice, you say that something was done or that something was done by someone.
Why should you avoid the "passive
For one thing, the passive construction is always more "wordy" than the active construction. (Notice the examples above.) Also, the passive construction takes emphasis away from whatever is being described or from whatever is performing the action.
There are times when you might want to use the passive voice, though. For example, the passive voice works well in the following sentence: "Thousands of crops were destroyed by insects." (The active construction would be "Insects destroyed thousands of crops.") The emphasis should be on the loss of "thousands of crops," not on the "insects," and the passive voice allows for this emphasis. You could also use the passive voice when you are unsure of the agent performing the action, as in "The comet was discovered hundreds of years ago."
Overall, you should avoid the passive voice, and when you do use it, make sure you use it for a specific reason.
(4) Avoid the Use of Clichés
What are clichés? Well, here we go . . .
pride and joy / between a rock and a hard place / every cloud has a silver lining / under the weather / last but not least / hustle and bustle / better late than never / at a loss for words / easier said than done / sad but true / green with envy / free as a bird / like there's no tomorrow / tried and true / pretty as a picture / without a doubt / when all is said and done / through rose colored glasses / raining cats and dogs / as cold as ice / winds of change / as busy as a bee / as quiet as a mouse / worlds apart / time flies / going nowhere fast / slowly but surely / as sly as a fox / a needle in a haystack / one in a million / fading fast / in the long run / going to the dogs / sick as a dog / dog eat dog world / a diamond in the rough / running in circles / as smooth as glass / all that glitters is not gold / in broad daylight / out of the blue / the point of no return / to cry like a baby / hope against hope / any port in a storm / too close for comfort / without a care in the world / under the gun / laughing her head off / strutting his stuff / a face in the crowd / more trouble than it's worth / to stick like glue / too close to call / down to the wire / can't win for losing / time will tell / outside looking in / in the nick of time / spinning one's wheels / to drown in sorrow / all's well that ends well / before you know it / neither hide nor hair / the rat race / scared out of one's skin / a bull in a china shop / as pure as snow / high as a kite / here today, gone tomorrow / what will be will be / as right as rain / now or never / for love or money / to lend a helping hand / wolf in sheep's clothing / to keep the wolf from the door / a piece of one's mind / the long and the short of it / high and dry / as dry as a bone / grab the bull by the horns / get one's act together / clean up one's act / to bite the bullet / a fish out of water / to march to a different drummer / in over one's head / on top of the world / pie in the sky / to bend over backwards / dressed to kill / one's bark is worse than one's bite / living on the edge / feast or famine / when it rains it pours / shadow of a doubt / a watched pot never boils / to get under one's skin / a bundle of joy / a joy to behold / the calm before the storm / a drop in the ocean / as proud as a peacock / as stubborn as a mule / as happy as a lark / to rub the wrong way / an uphill battle / truth is stranger than fiction / a race to the finish / to step over the line / to make a mountain out of a molehill / to sow what one reaps / skeletons in the closet / behind closed doors / to cry a river / to burn a hole in one's pocket / easy come, easy go / to let sleeping dogs lie / dead men tell no tales / time waits for no man / to add salt to the wound / smooth sailing / a cut above the rest / head and shoulders above the rest / eyes on the back of one's head / a good head on one's shoulders / in a blaze of glory / like it or not / to brighten one's spirits / to go down the drain / to be pushed to the edge / let the chips fall where they may / up against the wall / back against the wall / light's on but nobody's home / a beacon in the night / fight the good fight / gone but not forgotten / spur of the moment / no strings attached / things going downhill / at one's beck and call, so on and so forth . . .
Why should you avoid clichés?
The number of clichés here emphasizes a point: clichés are common, and that's exactly the reason you should avoid them.
Beginning writers often mistakenly think that clichés are effective ways to make their writing sound more "literary," more creative, or more original. However, clichés have just the opposite effect. They are worn-out expressions that have lost their vitality from overuse, and they are one sign of weak writing.
Think about this: when you hear somebody say, "every cloud has a silver lining," do you ever visualize the image? When you have heard this expression, have you ever actually seen a mental image of a cloud with that silver lining shining through? Probably not. You have heard the expression so many times that you don't even think about the image.
If you want to express the idea that everything was very quiet, do not write that "not a mouse was stirring." William Shakespeare, 400 years ago, wanted to express the idea that everything was quiet, so he wrote that there was "Not a mouse stirring" (Hamlet 1.1.11). Almost 2000 years ago, the Latin poet Virgil, in his Aeneid, used the phrase "bit the dust" (in Latin, even!) to describe a soldier falling in battle. Coming up with your own expressions is much better than using phrases that are already familiar to nearly all readers, phrases that, in some cases, have been used for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Clichés are sort of "pre-packaged" ways of expressing ideas. When you find yourself using a cliché, try to think of your own way of expressing the same idea. Who knows? If you are creative enough, people might be using your expression hundreds or thousands of years from now! (And English teachers will tell them not to . . .)
This page was last updated on July 25, 2006. Copyright Randy Rambo, 2006.