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Words To Avoid in Educational Writing

Published by Chris Coyier

I'm no English major, but as a writer and consumer of loads of educational (mostly tech) writing, I've come to notice a number of words and phrases that come up fairly often and don't add anything to the writing. In fact, they might detract from it.

This started as a Twitter discussion so I thought I'd write it up more clearly.

Here's some of those words:

1. Obviously

Now that the child elements are floated, obviously the parent element will collapse and we'll have to deal with that.

This is possibly the most common offender. Not everything is as obvious as you might think it is. That fact that you said it should be might make me feel extra-dumb at a vulnerable moment. And what if it is obvious to me? That word doesn't help me. Sentences usually work better with that word omitted.

2. Basically

Basically you just bind the click event and call the function when it fires.

You could probably use fewer words and explain it more clearly. Another case where the sentence is usually stronger with that word omitted.

3. Simply

Simply add a new line to the router pointing to the new controller.

It might be simple, but it would read better without that word. It's an instruction, it doesn't need any flair.

4. Of course

Of course the retina images are too large for non-retina screens.

You should make that clear with words or diagrams that explain why, rather than just telling me something should be self-evident that may or may not be to me.

5. Clearly

Clearly the function returns another function.

If it was so clear, you wouldn't need to tell me how clear it is.

6. Just

Just open your vector editing program of choice and change the color.

The word just in this context is an add-on word to make it seem more casual. There are better ways to be casual than adding words.

7. Everyone knows

More kilobytes means it takes longer to load. Everyone knows that's a bad thing.

If I don't know that, I'm immediately alienated and start to think that I'm reading the wrong thing. You can imagine variations like "As we all know,".

8. However

However, be careful about how many libraries you use.

There are useful ways to use the word however, but starting new sentences or sections of text with it can be a useless transitional word.

9. So

So, if you're interested, get in touch!

Used like this, so is a transitional word to separate some previous sentences from this ending. A new paragraph without the extra word is probably in order here.

10. Easy

Alter the X and Y coordinates to move the element to the new location. Easy.

An attempt to be reassuring and casual, but a frustrating bummer if what was supposed to be easy doesn't go so easily for a reader.


I'm an offender

I'm sure there are plenty of great uses for all these words. Language isn't as simple as THESE WORDS ARE GOOD AND THESE ARE BAD. It's a nuanced thing. In educational writing, being clear and direct is valuable and appreciated. Skip the filler words and save the casual vibe for a time when you aren't trying to explain something complicated.

I'm sure I've used all these words and otherwise bungled sentences all through this site. Feel free to call me out on it. I'm happy to revisit writing to make it better, particularly if something is unclear.

Comments

  1. Ryne
    Permalink to comment#

    Off-beat, but a very kind reminder. Fresh and constructive can’t be beat.

  2. Obviously, as a teacher, I should record my classes this semester, so I can see if I say any of those words. Clearly I just need my iPhone or iPad to take the video. Simple. However, I could just ask my students to keep track by giving them a list of “words I shouldn’t say” and have them check them off when I do. Easy! Of course, they could miss many of the times I say a word or two I shouldn’t–because everyone knows I spell-bind my students and captivate their attention. So, I’m probably just better off doing this myself.

  3. Obviously, nobody should use words like these. Of course they don’t add anything to the sentence. Simply said, this stuff is nonsense, it is visible clearly. Everybody knows how idiotic it is to just type stuff like this. However, this is not well known. How do they type these words? Easy. They just push the required keys on the keyboard, just like we people do, right?

    Look at the above paragraph, then at the above sentence.

    On a serious note, somebody understands me! Teens often add other stuff too:
    like: He was, like, amazed!
    totally: This stuff is totally lame!
    okay: You do this, okay?

    Among many more. I forget.

    Nice one, but you forgot something – these words are very useful in English assignments at school – it helps informal letters reach the required word length easily. ;)

  4. Bryce Johnson
    Permalink to comment#

    Thanks for this. I’m a copywriter turned developer. While I was learning, I often thought about the irony that many of the blogs and books I was learning from from passionately advocated that we ‘put the user first’ in design decisions, while completely neglecting the person who would actually be reading their writing.

    Another way this problem manifests itself is in poor documentation. It baffles me that someone can make a plugin or tool that will save other developers time coding, and then provide a poorly written readme file that costs new users all sorts of time and effort just to understand what it’s for and get started using it.

    I’m not really that upset about this. I am indebted to many writers who are the worst offenders of the rules in this post (and other principles of reader-centered writing). But I’m glad that you’re addressing it, Chris. I think low quality educative writing is something that can hold the web community back, if we’re not careful.

  5. Thanks! Useful article for non native writers. I’ll watch my copy to avoid them.

  6. Tony White
    Permalink to comment#

    Fellow offender here. When I wrote how-to’s , I knew my audience’s expertise would varied from novice to expert, and I remember leaning on these words so as not to isolate those who felt as if they were experts. That’s not a good reason to overuse these words, but I remember those thoughts going through my head when doing so.

  7. Permalink to comment#

    “You could probably use less words”

    I think you mean “You could probably use fewer words.” Because in an article designed to teach one how to write, you know…

  8. This one falls in the same “Use IDs or classes” sack. The lesson we all learned from that dance was: There’s no need to be dogmatic about it.

    Sorry, I don’t see that lesson learned here.

  9. Permalink to comment#

    I saw some tweets about this a few weeks ago- was happy to see a full post! Great read. Makes sense- if you are trying to teach something to someone, you should not treat any of what you are teaching as easy or obvious. It could easily deter potential readers from even trying what you are teaching.

    Thanks for the post!

  10. Permalink to comment#

    Mostly agree, and I’m as bad an offender as anyone.

    But there is a case to be made for using some of these words at times. When teaching, it’s important to do so in a down-to-earth manner that prevents readers from feeling like their reading a wooden technical manual. Some of these words can be used to give an article or tutorial a more natural and conversational feel.

    But to give my own suggestions in this area, I’d avoid the words:

    really

    very

    I often search my articles for either of those words and remove them. It rarely changes anything and makes things more clear. You don’t need to say that the opacity property has really good browser support, you can just say it has good browser support or even better, tell us the browser support. Similar concept to what you already discussed in the article with some of the other words.

  11. Permalink to comment#

    Great article, however I pretty much use all of those, and I personally think they’re actually helpful.

    Clearly it’s a subjective matter, but I feel like adding those small words can basically help make the text flow better.

    Of course, it’s also possible that I’m simply not a good enough writer yet. So maybe I’m just relying on them as a crutch?

    In any case, everyone knows that what when it comes to writing, what works in one case might not work in another. Obviously, it all depends on the context.

    • +1

      it all depends on the context

    • Permalink to comment#

      Quite obviously indeed.

    • Mazurka
      Permalink to comment#

      Agreed, it does really depend on context and in this instance the context is supplied in the article: Educational articles specifically dealing with technical subjects like website development.

  12. Permalink to comment#

    Interesting !

    However:-)

    As long as the content is worth reading , me, as a non native English person do not care much about this while reading a text.

    Regards

    • Permalink to comment#

      As non native English person and as a person who started learning English from scratch three years ago, I do care about it ;)

      The fact that a very big percentage of the technical documentation out there is written in English, and the fastest way to find information, at least about web development, is in English, as more clear, consistent and without distracting words / concepts the documentation is written, better I think the communication is done.

      thanks for the article by the way!

  13. You can add “Utilize”, the most over and incorrectly used word on the internet:
    1 Utilize

    This is the number one improperly used word on the Internet. Writers use utilize instead of use. Why? I suppose they think it sounds more intelligent. Almost everywhere I see this word, the writer should have used the word use.

    Utilize means to use something for which it was not intended. For example, “We’re going to utilize that old Mac as a door stop.”

    Wrong: Can I utilize your computer to send an email?

    Right: Can I use your computer to send an email?

    Here’s a simple rule so you’ll know when to use utilize: NEVER.

    • Mike Hopley
      Permalink to comment#

      That’s not exactly true. That usage is largely specific to Americans. “Utilise” has several other meanings too, including “to make the best use of”.

      But as you say, it tends to be used pretentiously rather than usefully. “Use” is normally better.

      I feel many writers go through a phase of strictness when they are starting out (I did!). Although it’s good to have discipline in your writing, beware the enthusiastic fit! Being too proud of your correctness can blind you to the other problems in your writing — such as that it’s deadly dull.

      It’s like coders obsessing over how the brackets and spacing should be formatted, or whether to use single or double quotes. You can get lost in the details, and being good at details can become your shield against criticism. You become proud of your writing because it has no technical defects. That’s not a productive state of mind. Be proud of your writing when your write something compelling.

      I feel Chris’s writing here is a good example. It’s clear, but he doesn’t get derailed by worrying too much about making everything 100% pedantically “correct”. He also strikes an informal, friendly tone without bloating the writing with too many words. Aspects of his personality come across in his writing (humble, kind, supportive, honest, straightforward).

      Writing is about communication. Using fewer words makes communication crisper; but wield the axe too zealously and your writing may be maimed — like a tree pruned back so hard it dies.

  14. Brendan Keefe
    Permalink to comment#

    Good reminders. I’d quibble with #8, though. I think it can be a succinct transition, or an introduction or pointer to complications that usually lie below the surface of the simple instructions you might be writing.

    However, I wouldn’t insist that you use it.

  15. philtune
    Permalink to comment#

    I will start linking to this article on StackOverflow, hah! In writing on technical subjects, the writer should always be aware that readers from all experience levels will come across their contribution, and the programming community should be all about being inclusive, not alienating.

    Chris, you’re pretty darn good at not making me feel dumb when you write on subjects you’ve probably written on dozens of times before but I’ve just not gotten it yet.

  16. Permalink to comment#

    these words are great for essay writing where you are required to write X number of words.

  17. Jesse
    Permalink to comment#

    Couldn’t help but notice that the first three items on the list are adverbs, which are the usual suspects to avoid when attempting to make a point in a concise manner. They’re used for emphasis, but often have the opposite effect: they weaken the point by being superfluous. Rule of thumb: slay them mercilessly.

    I’d also say that 8/10 of the words on the list can end up in our writing when we fail to empathize with the reader’s level of expertise. If we assume that the reader has exactly our level of skill when they often don’t (otherwise, why write these pieces?), words like “obviously” or “easy” can come off as self-congratulatory and condescending. They congratulate our equals and our betters (where skill is concerned) who can pick up concepts quickly, and demean others who are struggling to get to our level.

    I’m as much an offender as anyone here, and I’m trying harder to check myself. To that end, I do something similar to what Stephen King recommends in On Writing: let your drafts sit for a while before proofreading them. I’ve made a habit of saving drafts of emails, posts, even tweets, and returning to them hours or days later with a fresh set of eyes to ensure I’m sending the right message in the right tone for my audience.

    Great post.

    • Jesse. Good advice from Steven King. Also, something I do is to read the piece out loud. A great way to catch errors that your eye misses.

  18. Camaron
    Permalink to comment#

    In many regards this really applies to conversations, emails and any open dialog as well.

  19. Basically, Simply, Just, So, Easy, doh…

    I use that words because of my limited English. Sorry…

  20. Permalink to comment#

    Face-to-face and recorded lessons are even more challenging. The words have to come from the heart. I’ve heard these, really: “Your grandmother could do that. ” or “This is not the website that your sister could build.” How is this helpful to anyone, male or female.

  21. Andrei Pham
    Permalink to comment#

    I don’t agree on the “However” one.

    “In order for the wrapper to expand along with its children, you’re gonna have to keep them unfloated.
    However, overflow: hidden still remains the most chosen ‘hack’, as it lets the children be floated how much you want.”

  22. Permalink to comment#

    Good advice, thank you! It is too easy to use these words in writing, especially as a non-native English writer. Have to keep an eye out for these from now on.

    This reminded me of my university math book, which often omitted proofs of theorems as trivial. And boy they sure weren’t trivial to me..

    • Mike Hopley
      Permalink to comment#

      Mathematics has its own language:

      A problem is “trivial” when an expert in the subject can prove it in a few pages (relying on several other theorems).

      It’s “non-trivial” when a good mathematician has to study for a month to understand it.

      It’s “distinctly non-trivial” when about three people in the world understand it.

      It’s “highly non-trivial” when the proof required an act of genius, or massive computation, or both.

      It’s “challenging” when nobody knows whether it can be proved, and they’ve been trying for at least a hundred years.

  23. guest
    Permalink to comment#

    are we talking about tech writing or just writing in general ?

  24. Add “personally” to the list; eg, I personally think …

    Instead, use “I think…”, or better yet, just write what you think. The reader is smart enough to assume what you wrote is what you think.

  25. Permalink to comment#

    Ever since I was chastised for using “just” in an explanation on how to do something (the other person felt I was being condescending), I’ve made a concerted effort to not use it while instructing or training others. Thanks for the other words, am guilty of some of those as well at times!

  26. Permalink to comment#

    It is good reminder for those of us (me) who uses words and writing on a daily basis. Oh, the many bad habits we have like Obviously, Basically and just.

  27. Jeff
    Permalink to comment#

    Good advice, Chris. My uncle likes to tell the story of his Fluid Dynamics professor, who was fond of saying, “…as is plainly obvious to the most casual of observers…,” as though anything in Fluid Dynamics falls into that category.

  28. joan
    Permalink to comment#

    Why do I think these words just great here? I am not a native English speaker, though.

  29. joan
    Permalink to comment#

    The fact that a very big percentage of the technical documentation out there is written in English, and the fastest way to find information, at least about web development, is in English

    I couldn’t agree more.

  30. Permalink to comment#

    I always use these words :P

    I have at least one of them in my every article.

    Will try to improve, thanks for tips. :)

  31. I appreciate the odd post like this that are sort of off-topic, but still useful to the community. Good one. (This comment reads like spam, but I mean it!) Ok, I’m stopping. Now.

  32. My pet peeve: “the fact that.”

  33. Next to «easy» I would put «simple». I’ve read quite a few documents where those words are used to disguise that the procedure is «complicated».

  34. Good post, Chris. Close to my heart, as a designer who has an Ed degree with a major in English. The big similarity with all of these words: they all assume understanding (and can come off a little condescending, too, if one’s not careful). Generally assuming understanding, as opposed to explaining it, can be dangerous.

    I realize you can’t explain every little item, though, or else you’d be creating the World’s Guide to the World. Which might be a little time-consuming to make.

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