Master Copy-Strengthening Secrets: Little Words that Make Your Copy Fat

Will Newman

Something you might not know about me: I’m a hunter.

I don’t hunt for deer, elk, or quail. But when I spot my “big game,” I eliminate it quickly … and joyfully.

I hunt for words.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love words — their sounds, history, shades of meanings.

But still I hunt down and eradicate words like a big game hunter.


Because as we write, unneeded words sneak into our copy unnoticed … making your copy “fat.”

So I go on my hunting expeditions to find those words.

My big game is small.

What words do I look for? Let me give you an example. I got this question from a Circle of Success member on my exclusive COS Blog entitled, “7 Steps to (Almost) Perfect Copy.”

Hi Will, Thanks for these very practical steps to (almost) perfect copy … !

And, because of your request [to point out typos that might have snuck into the article]: Just wondering if the word "to" is missing in the following:

Should it be: The obvious answer is TO not proofread your own writing … ?

Here’s my answer:

Good question. This is the editing step of removing unnecessary words. Take out "to" on the infinitive. Does removing it change the meaning? Does removing it halt reading (unless you're reading to edit). If not, the “to” goes.

Words like this “to” can often be eliminated. Why would you want to, though?

First, if you write with word limits as I do in the blog and The Writer's Life, getting rid of these small intruders helps me stay within my word limit.

Second, any words in your copy that can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the copy and that don’t cause problems with the reading bloat your copy. Get rid of them. You’ll immediately strengthen your copy.

Some examples of copy-bloating words …

Copy-bloater #1: THAT

My personal biggest copy-bloater is “that.” I use it often … and often when it’s not needed.

The story that we read …

When you take “that” out, does it change meaning or ease of reading?

The story we read …

Not at all. The word “that” bloats copy and must be hunted and destroyed.

Copy-bloater #2: SOME OF THE and MANY OF THE

Some of the copywriters …
Some copywriters …

Many of the copywriters …
Many copywriters …

But even better (and we’ll revisit this in a future article) …

34% of copywriters …

Copy-bloater #3: The articles A, AN, THE

You can highlight the benefits when …
You can highlight benefits when …

Copy-bloater #4: Auxiliary verbs like CAN and MAY

You can highlight benefits when …
Highlight benefits when …

Copy-bloater #5: IF/THEN

A little explanation. The nuns taught me conditional sentences having “if/then” always needed both words. (And a comma before “then.”) But do they? Take a look.

If you follow deadlines, then you’ll be paid quickly.
If you follow deadlines, you’ll be paid quickly.

The nuns were wrong. If you lose “then” in the sentence, you haven’t changed meaning or made your copy harder to read. If anything, you’ve made it more natural.

The not-so-final word

These five copy-bloaters are ones I use in my copy often. I hunt them down and kill them mercilessly after I finish writing. Which brings up a crucial editing strategy I share with my COS friends.

Don’t edit while writing. Finish the entire copy (if short) or a natural section if long (like your lead). Once done, go on your hunting expedition.

Another note: These are only a few copy-bloaters to watch out for. When you’re editing, develop the skill of seeing any words you don’t really need and eliminate them. You’ll strengthen every piece of copy you write.

We’ll revisit this topic again soon … with more specific strategies for making your copy stronger and more successful. For now, though, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Let us know by commenting below.

I look forward to seeing you back here next week.

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Published: September 9, 2016

22 Responses to “Master Copy-Strengthening Secrets: Little Words that Make Your Copy Fat”

  1. Dear Will, Thanks for the insight as to "how" you write. I do enjoy your posts. Because you are a teacher, I have a question, or a problem with writing, that I wanted to run by you. Long ago, before idea and word cloud-type generators, do you remember.....well, what it was like to have a creative mind? It was quite what words sound like, meaning, inferences, and (heaven forbid) perhaps a glimpse of a celestial plane where "inspiration" originates. And, if an idea or theme was truly "shared", wasn't it proper/necessary to give reference? Now there are the COPYCATS/word machines. Its all a machine/mentality, maybe, with different rules. So, I would ask a teacher if I see copywriting in the proper light? Thanks, Paris

    ParisSeptember 9, 2016 at 10:44 am

  2. Thanks, Will. Very informative.

    Guest (carl stark)September 9, 2016 at 12:57 pm

  3. Thank u 4 setting me free ! Though already actively involved in using the above suggestions in my writing n texting, I have never quite overcome the guilt of not using the "correct" English taught by my college professors. Even permission given by my journalism classes did not wipe out the years of drilling. Thank u! Reading your suggestions has given me more confidence in my writing style. Keep up the good work ! 😊

    Guest (Mona)September 9, 2016 at 3:07 pm

  4. Glad you suggested waiting until you finish writing to edit but you didn't say why. It's because you use two different parts of the brain for the two tasks. If you are writing and on a roll it's crazy to stop, shut down your creative mind, and go into maintenance mode. You wouldn't pull off the highway to check the air pressure in your tires would you?
    Let your ideas flow until they run dry, then handle the spell checking.
    Thanks for all the great ideas Will!

    [FROM WILL: Thank you, Terry, for giving this extra detail. I have two limit the word count on these articles, so sometimes I have to leave out these important details. But I depend on my savvy readers such as you to fill in the blanks.]

    Guest (Terry Sweatt)September 9, 2016 at 6:20 pm

  5. Excellent advice.

    Guest (Larry)September 9, 2016 at 6:35 pm

  6. Excellent article. Another tool related to this is Strunk & White's book, The Elements of Style. The writing magic happens with the editing. Write a rough draft. Then apply Strunk and White. Next, apply these tips from Will. Each ruthless shaving of edits creates a smooth reading experience.

    Don SevcikSeptember 9, 2016 at 7:30 pm

  7. Dear Will,

    Thanks so much, Will. Any reminders of HOW I'm to edit the work is a great help! : D

    Guest (Kathleen P)September 9, 2016 at 8:36 pm

  8. Will, thank you for your advice. I couldn't agree more. In college we called those fillers.

    Guest (Robin Shaeffer)September 9, 2016 at 9:14 pm

  9. Will Newman: We haven't met but I like your insight as to little words adding fat..
    Excellent advice.. Thanks..

    Gil-TSeptember 9, 2016 at 11:19 pm

  10. Hi Will, The word 'that' has been a big target for my Mastermind group. We meet each Sunday (virtually) to edit each others' copy. I was a hard sell on eliminating 'that,' but I'm now convinced. Thanks!

    Joyce HSeptember 10, 2016 at 8:06 am

  11. Thanks Will. Editing is a real art, one that aspiring authors don't always 'get', and I'm coming to appreciate the finer points of it in this sphere.

    I love the ability to express myself with "big words", subjunctive mood and gerunds … I am naturally a 'grammar pedant'. BUT I'm learning to keep things much simpler as I become a copywriter worth the title. I can now do it without cringing!

    I'd say Twitter has helped my lean writing: 140 characters is a *tight* constraint … I'd recommend it :)

    Duncan WaldronSeptember 10, 2016 at 9:46 pm

  12. I looked at your copy and found other fluff which passive voice creates. Just use active voice, action verbs, good adjectives, and adverbs. One example is the sentence that uses the sub-phrase "are one of many i often ..." remove the being verb and you are left with just what you need, without the reflexive reemphasis. I do it, often, too, so when I edit, I use RGL and atricle elimination the same way. Air Force programmed text writing taught me that skill.

    Guest (Gregory Smith)September 11, 2016 at 1:23 am

  13. Thank you Will. Sorry, should that read simply 'Thanks Will'? It takes some thought process retraining to actually implement your sound advice, but I'm persisting!

    Aussie Kathryn September 11, 2016 at 2:14 am

  14. Hi Will,

    By your own definition of copy-bloaters, in your second to last paragraph, could the word "again" be removed? "We'll revisit this topic soon..." The meaning of the sentence remains the same.

    Thanks, Scott Finkle

    ScottFSeptember 11, 2016 at 7:59 am

  15. Dear Will,

    Thanks for sharing your 'hunting' rules. I agree, bloated copy is a fun hunting ground, and can be great exercise to keep one's mind agile.

    My comment is about a bane in my listening world. When did the word 'snuck' sneak into our lexicon as acceptable usage? it screeches into my ears just like fingernails on chalkboard

    Has it just been slipped in, along with so many other ill-used words? I didn't get that memo.

    Any wisdom or solace for an unrepentant word snob?

    Guest (LeAnne Shanahan)September 11, 2016 at 3:06 pm

  16. thank you for the tips on bloaters, this is fascinating that small words can be deleted without losing the message. I am having to forget the strict writing rules from elementary school.

    ERNurseSeptember 11, 2016 at 8:38 pm

  17. Hey Will, this was a very useful article - thanks for that! I'm guilty as charged with copy-bloat, so I love to trim and snip wherever I can.


    Guest (Jim Mahannah)September 12, 2016 at 9:37 am

  18. G'day Will, great advice, I'm in the process of drafting my 'revised' restaurant letter and will go through it with your vetting suggestions.

    Geoff SSeptember 12, 2016 at 10:32 pm

  19. sometimes when ppl write me about writting i space out, it is too i read u r article of the hunter, i loved it!
    thanks hunter i am caught but still kicking!

    Guest (caught by the hunter)September 14, 2016 at 12:03 pm

  20. This is such a great post! I remember reading it when it was emailed to me a few years ago. I just reviewed it again. What a gem!

    Guest (Bjorn)November 6, 2018 at 12:31 pm

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