Copy Flab: Four Words to Cut from Your Copy

I’ve been tinkering with business copy off and on for over 25 years, and there are certain weaknesses that crop up over and over again. In this series of posts, I’ll be looking at some of the most common flaws that weaken business copy. Today’s weakness: Copy Flab.

Copy Flab is my term for the unnecessary words and phrases that clutter our writing. These words and phrases are the proverbial carb fillers in our healthy diet of lean meats and veggies. They leave us feeling sluggish and spacey, and they can hide an otherwise clear, tidy message. Often, the biggest difference between copy that sells and copy that simply takes up space is the overabundance of unnecessary words and phrases.

Public Enemy #1: “That”

Eliminate or work around the word “that” to tighten your sentences:

Wordy: I know that we need more paper.

Better: I know we need more paper.


Wordy: Steel that comes from our factory is stronger than steel that comes from any other factory in the world.

Better: Steel from our factory is stronger than steel from any other factory in the world.

Best: Our steel is stronger than any other.


Wordy: The fact was that thousands of infantrymen died in the battle.

Better: Thousands of infantrymen died in the battle.


Wordy: It was commonly known that the pub was a front for many illicit dealings.

Better: The pub was a front for many illicit dealings.


Public Enemy #2: “Just” and its conversational counterparts

I blame this sin on blogs, e-mails, and the plethora of conversational writing on the Internet. And I confess—“just” is my own personal demon. My fingers type it automatically, and I have to search and destroy.

Here are a few more you can search for: Really, very, honestly, seriously, both, there was/there is, began, started, continued, about, kind of, sort of, as well.

Most of the time, you can eliminate these words without changing the meaning or message of your copy.


Public Enemy #3: “Was” with an –ing verb

I’m not a “was” hater, but beginning writers often couple “was” with an –ing word, which is a weak construction. The solution is simple: Change the verb form and eliminate “was.”


Wordy: She was dancing to the music of the drum and pipe.

Better: She danced to the music of the drum and pipe.

Or: She danced to the drum and pipe.


Public Enemy #4: Prepositional phrases

There are times when I love a good string of prepositional phrases. I think they add a poetic rhythm to writing when not overused. However, they rarely belong in a business context. Remember, you aren’t looking for poetry and rhythm–you need to communicate clear, concise ideas by making your writing as tight as possible. Search for some of the following phrases:

of the

to the

on the

in the

Those particular offenders indicate a string of prepositional phrases in my own writing; you may discover other offenders in your own work.

Space is at a premium in most business publications. Don’t waste it on Copy Flab. Chop the flab and allow your brilliant ideas, concepts, and products to shine on their own.

Original version of this article appeared at Fantasy Faction, May 2011.

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