13 Common, Clunky Sentence Structures That Weaken Your Writing

13 Common, Clunky Sentence Structures That Weaken Your Writing

Blog writing — and, increasingly, any informative writing — comes with a unique challenge: Share quality information in a casual, entertaining and approachable voice.

Be authoritative…but also, like, totally cool.

While many people think the conversational tone of a blog means writing it will be easy, good writers know the careful calculation that goes into making something read like it took no effort at all.

Unfortunately, too many writers try to achieve the tone by actually putting no effort into it. They write the way they speak — but forget one important thing: Writing can be edited. Sure, write like you speak…but better, because writing gives you the chance.

13 conversational tropes that weaken your writing

Some phrases common to conversational writing always make me cringe.

They’re not grammatically incorrect, and they don’t even break persnickety rules of syntax (think: never ending a sentence with a preposition). They just annoy me.

Setting aside my own feelings, though, these phrases make writing feel sloppy, confusing and long-winded.

Watch out for these 13 chatty sentence structures to tighten your copy and make your writing shine.

1. Just because…doesn’t mean

“Just because you don’t have kids doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the luxury of the family bathroom at the airport.”

How many negatives do you have to dance through to decipher that sentence? The “just because…doesn’t mean” construction adds unnecessary words to your sentence and puts readers through an obstacle course to understand it.

Here’s a clearer path through that sentence:

“Not having kids doesn’t exclude you from enjoying the luxury of the family bathroom at the airport.”

2. Not only…but also

“Not only did she wear a frilly purple dress, but she also wore a floppy yellow hat that made her impossible to miss in a crowd.”

This is classic sentence construction. But it’s overused.

Writers use it too often when all they actually need is an “and” to tie to items together. I assume the intent is to add weight to ideas, but it usually just makes the reader wait longer to understand the point of the sentence.

Let’s try that again:

“She wore a filly purple dress and a floppy yellow hat that made her impossible to miss in a crowd.”

3. Passive voice

“This locket was given to me by an important person from my childhood.”

You know this one. Your English teacher won’t dock your grade for passive construction anymore, but you still shouldn’t use it.

Almost every sentence will be stronger in active voice. You might think passive voice is necessary in the example sentence, because you want to focus on the locket. But try it in active voice, and you’ll usually find it has a better ring.

Here’s that sentence with an active subject:

“An important person from my childhood gave me this locket.”

4. If…then

“If he goes to the festival, then I won’t be here when he returns.”

This sentence construction isn’t incorrect, and it’s not even particularly wordy. I just don’t like it. It sounds elementary, like a set of rules you actually learned in elementary school.

Just cut “then” for a tighter sentence:

“If he goes to the festival, I won’t be here when he returns.”

Or switch it up to cut that boring “if” out of your sentence altogether:

“He can go to the festival, but I’ll probably leave him before he returns.”

sentence structure5. The thing is…

“The thing about iPhones is you just want to upgrade as often as possible.”

This colloquial phrase makes sense in conversation, when you don’t always know where your sentence will end when you start it. In writing, you have the luxury of fixing those sentences after they meet an awkward end.

Axe “the thing (about X) is,” and choose a more specific subject:

“iPhone fanatics want to upgrade as often as possible.”

6. Anyway…

Do you know how annoying this word is in a conversation?

Your friend starts a story with, “I had the weirdest conversation with my manager in the breakroom last Friday,” then veers off into some extraneous details about free office muffins. Just as you’re wondering how she’ll weave this tall tale together, she takes a deep breath and says, “So anyway…” and you realize you’ve just listened to a bunch of stuff you absolutely didn’t need to know.

The word triggers the same reaction in a reader. If you ever begin a chunk of writing with “anyway,” reconsider the preceding content. Is it relevant, or did you stumble into free-muffin territory?

7. Not to mention

“We ate a caprese salad, fresh Italian bread, homemade soup, mini pizzas and spaghetti — not to mention a giant piece of birthday cake afterward.”

What does this mean? You’re mentioning it! It’s annoying enough in conversation; it’s intolerable in editable writing.

Related: “It goes without saying,” followed by literally saying it. My god.

Dig deeper if you want to emphasize something:

“We ate a caprese salad, fresh Italian bread, homemade soup, mini pizzas and spaghetti. We were stuffed but couldn’t skip the giant piece of birthday cake!”

8. Obviously / Of course

“Obviously I don’t mean your writing should be stripped of any personality.”

Is it obvious? Then why are you including it?

I see this one in authoritative blog posts often. Usually information is obvious to the writer, but they include it because it’s not obvious to the reader. To cover their butt, they throw in the “obviously” or “of course.”

If you think information is obvious to your readers, don’t waste their time with it. If it’s not obvious to all of them, don’t condescend or confuse with this little phrase.

(I do, however, enjoy a sarcastic “obviously.”)

9. As I mentioned / As I said above

“As I mentioned, you’ll want to butter the pan generously before adding the chicken.”

If you’re writing an informative book, this makes sense. Remind a reader of something they read in an earlier chapter, possibly days before.

In a 1,000-word blog post? Your reader’s memory isn’t that short. But their attention span is.

Don’t waste valuable time repeating yourself. And definitely don’t include this giant red flag that warns the reader you’re about to repeat yourself.

10. Be sure to… / Make sure you…

“Before leaving the hotel, be sure to check under the bed, in the closet and inside the shower for any items you might have left behind.”

I’m guilty of this construction. (That’s right. Even I’m not perfect, you guys.) It sneaks into my instructional writing, maybe to add a touch of rhythm to sentences that would be boring or sound bossy.

But it’s unnecessary. Axe it. If you can delete a phrase from a sentence, make no changes and share the same message, you didn’t need that phrase.

Read it, and enjoy how much more quickly you get to the meat of the sentence:

“Before leaving the hotel, check under the bed, in the closet and inside the shower for any items you might have left behind.”

Related: The same applies to “start to,” two words that should never start a sentence.

11. Even though

“Even though you can raise your truck 10 feet off the ground, you shouldn’t.”

This is a lot like the “just because…doesn’t mean” phenomenon. It’s correct, and it gets the job done, but your sentence deserves better than these boring space wasters.

The sentence packs a better punch if you just connect the two clauses with “but”:

“You can raise your truck 10 feet off the ground, but you shouldn’t.”

See how much faster you get to the point?

12. There are

“There are 17 women in my family, and they keep my dad on his toes.”

I axe this every time I see it in a piece I’m editing. Your brain goes to it naturally — mine does, too — and we use it in conversation all the time. But in writing, it feels weak.

Beef up your sentence with a rewrite:

“The 17 women in my family sure keep my dad on his toes.”

13. That being said…

“Apple juice is basically just sugar. That being said, if your kid wants something sweet, it’s probably better than Coca Cola.”

This one just makes me cringe, written or spoken out loud. I feel like someone’s narrating their own dialogue with this phrase. I know it was said. Just say, “but” or “still” or… anything else.

Try leaving “that being said” unsaid:

“Apple juice is basically just sugar, but if your kid wants something sweet, it’s probably better than Coca Cola.”

Make every word count

Anyway, all that being said, the thing about writing is just because something annoys one editor doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons it should be used. If you use one of these phrases, then make sure it’s not only necessary but also better than any other choice.

Obviously, I’m not the only one with pet peeves, so be sure to share yours in the comments!

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24 comments

  • Vivienne says:

    An excellent post. Some of these I hate. Too, but others I’ve not thought about. Oh dear! This makes me want to rewrite everything I’ve written.😕

  • philip mann says:

    My editor taught me the same thing. I had written a sentence that included the phrase “some cold weather.” She said the word “some was extra.
    She also told me to watch out for my favorite words, such as “seems.”

  • Mandy says:

    “to name just a few” I cringe whenever I see or hear this.

  • As an editor, I would not normally attempt to delete any of these constructions from an author’s style. I consider it my job to balance correcting errors, improving clarity, and maintaining the writer’s voice rather than imposing my own. It can feel a bit like juggling sometimes.

    Frankly, I think it very much depends on the target audience for a particular piece. The “improved” versions given here sound like they have been downgraded to a sixth-grade reading level. For some audiences, that’s appropriate. For others, it is downright insulting. Know your audience, and you’ll hit it right.

    Trish O’Connor
    Owner, Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • philip mann says:

      That may be true, but I found that it resulted in my having a more disciplined approach to my writing. Now I go over my work, looking for extra words, or even sentences that aren’t needed.

    • JOHN T SHEA says:

      I agree. Though brevity can be a virtue, ‘necessitarian’ writing can read like a workshop manual. The test is not whether a word or phrase is necessary, but whether it’s desirable. Unless the piece IS a workshop manual!

    • Dana Sitar says:

      I think writers commonly conflate wordiness with complexity. The after versions of these sentences convey the same ideas as the before, not dumbed down but more clear.

      • It is also possible to conflate grammatical complexity with lack of clarity.

        An example comes to mind from my previous career as a Director of Religious Education in a parish with both anglo and Hispanic parents. I gave the parent meetings separately, although when I started I did not speak Spanish. I would write my script in English, and my secretary would translate it for me so I could simply read the Spanish. I was once giving a meeting when she was on vacation, and tried using Google Translate, which was not yet very well-developed.

        For one passage, I had written, “When a child says in confession that he or she missed Mass because a parent did not take them, it is a sin, but it is not the child’s sin. Do we understand each other?” Fortunately, by then my Spanish was just good enough for me realize Google had rendered it, “When a child confesses he missed Mass because a parent did not take him, it is not a sin.” I was able to get it fixed in time. I don’t think the fact that Google didn’t yet handle that level of complexity means that the student’s parents did not understand, just as it does not mean that people do not understand this sentence with a total of four negatives. I saw those parents’ eyes. Not only did they understand the complex structure, but it had more impact than it would have if I had simply said, “If you refuse to take your child to Mass, you commit a sin.”

        Well, okay, this post didn’t break all thirteen rules. Maybe next time.

        Trish O’Connor
        Owner, Epiclesis Consulting LLC
        Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
        epiclesisconsulting.com

  • Cactus Jake says:

    This post makes me feel guilty, ashamed, and motivated to write better. Thank you!

  • Mommy Jhy | www.myfavoritelists.com says:

    Oh wow, I learned a lot! 😮

  • ERNO ROSSI says:

    Thanks for the help. I’ll keep you in mind for editing.

  • Cathy Collins says:

    Awesome post. Life learner here always editing and reciting my own writing.great to review basics.

    My pet peeves: words repeatedly said incorrectly or improperly.
    -Anyways (if necessary , say anyway )
    -Irregardless
    -prostrate (prostate)
    -foliage (foliage)
    DOUBLE NEGATIVES
    And bad lazy bad habits!

    not for nothing but… eek can’t stand that

    Thank you, look forward to following and reading your pieces

  • Darren Goerz says:

    Good Post.
    I can often be verbose and rambling, which is especially bad when writing blog posts.
    Good advice.
    Thanks

  • Taren Randal says:

    Thanks. I’ll have to search for and kill these phrases in my writing. (More to add to the growing list of crutch words.)

  • Elizabeth says:

    Some great tips I’m saving for future reference. Love the “free-muffin territory” bit!

  • Brenda Hill says:

    This excellent article is perfect timing as I begin one more book. I have the same pet peeves, yet catch them more when editing others. My other negative and useless phrase is …
    “to be honest..” Or.. ” to tell the truth.” Does this mean the writer is NOT honest and doesn’t always tell the truth?

  • Therese Ralston says:

    I say just, and about, and maybe, and and, and around about, and well… far too much. I am over-qualifying my qualifiers when I don’t need them anyway. About to start my blog, this advice couldn’t come at a better time. Thanks so much Dana, you make my writing life a little more right than it was.

  • Personally, although none of this bothers me, I understand how it would become an issue for many writers and readers alike. I dislike failed attempts at parallelism much more – it feels like meaningless repetition, which I positively loathe. If you can’t think of a different way to say something, or some way to expand on it, you shouldn’t be saying it over and over at all! (Rephrasing doesn’t mean you *should* repeat the same information, but it does at least make it bearable.)

  • James says:

    OMG, that last paragraph! lol… cleverly excruciating.

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