Hedge Words and Inflation Words: Prune Them From Your Writing

prune unnecessary words

Today’s guest post is by editor Jessi Rita Hoffman (@JRHwords).


As writers, we all know wordiness is something to avoid: never say in ten words what you can say in four. But while we get that in theory, it’s often hard, in practice, to produce tight writing. We look at the sentences on the page, suspecting they are verbose, but don’t know what to change or to eliminate. Learning that is part of the art and craft of writing, of course, and no one blog post can identify all the secrets. But as a book editor who sees lots of writers make many identical mistakes, I’d like to highlight two common writing flaws that clutter the manuscripts of many aspiring authors. I call these culprits “hedge words” and “inflation words.”

Inflation Words: The Problem

Inflation words are intensifiers a writer adds to a sentence in an effort to make something he wrote sound punchier. Very, extremely, highly, truly, literally, precisely, key, and totally are examples of inflation words. The author hopes that by using them, the point she is making will carry more weight, or have more intensity, but the opposite usually results. It’s true that used sparingly, a well-placed intensifier can add flavor, like a dash of salt on one’s food. But when paragraphs are laden with intensifiers, word inflation results. Everything said is so overemphasized that readers become desensitized. You’re shouting so loud that nobody can hear. You’ve spiced the soup so heavily that no one knows if it’s turkey noodle or beef barley under there. The boy has called, “Wolf!” too often, and no one is listening anymore.

Some aspiring authors do the same thing with italics and bolding that others do with inflation words: they overuse them to the point where, when they really want to emphasize something, there’s no way to make it stand out (because everything has been made to stand out). That’s when some writers, in frustration, add underlining to the mix, or all capital letters, or (God forbid) an increase in font size, and soon the manuscript has the visual appearance of a sign or a flier. Or maybe it looks like something a middle-schooler wrote, complete with !!! or !?! at the end of the sentences. Uh-oh, not good!

Inflation Words: The Cure

Instead of trying to prop up weak writing with inflation words or heavy formatting tricks, achieve emphasis in a controlled and tasteful way by selecting the single, precise word that perfectly conveys the flavor you intend to express. For example, replace very confidently with boldly. Replace extremely clever with genius. You don’t need to add an intensifier if the word you select in the first place has the intensity you’re looking for.

Alternatively, sometimes emphasis is better achieved by understatement—by dressing the writing down and making it less blustering. Very important to note becomes, simply, the words you want the reader to note, without the bombastic prelude.

Hedge Words: The Problem

On the other end of the inflation/deflation spectrum, we have authors who prefer to use hedge words: words that deflate the power of the writing by qualifying or limiting other words in the vicinity. These are the hesitant writers, who feel shy about making their points boldly. They are apt to couch their sentences in apologetic words like: generally, more or less, relatively, seems to, on average, potentially, and usually. This, of course, weakens the power of the point they are making, because it sounds to readers like the writer himself isn’t convinced of the truth of what he’s saying.

Hedge words show up more in nonfiction than in fiction, but sometimes even fiction writers over-qualify what they are saying. If hedge words are allowed to proliferate in descriptive writing, they weaken the power of the image the author intends to create.

It’s not that these limiting words are intrinsically “bad”—hedge words certainly have their place, particularly in mathematical and scientific writing. It’s also fine to use them in ordinary prose so long as you do it occasionally and when qualification is needed for accuracy. But if you notice limiting qualifiers sprinkled liberally across all of your paragraphs, you suffer from the malady of being a hedge-words writer.

Hedge Words: The Cure

The cure for deflationary writing is to relax and have more faith in your readers. They know when you write “a thousand soldiers came over the hill” that you mean more or less a thousand. They know when you write that Marilyn rises on weekends after the sun comes up that you mean she does this generally. Those qualifiers (more or less and generally) are understood without being explicitly stated. If you do include them, it may sound like a bigger deal than you meant. We think you’re implying some soldiers perhaps have gone AWOL and that Marilyn is erratic in her sleeping habits. If you’re a hedge-word enthusiast, take a breath, be bold, and trust your readers’ intelligence.

Taking Inventory

Look at some samples of your own writing, and see if inflation words or hedge words frequently appear there. If they do, that awareness alone will help you start to catch yourself. I know, for instance, that I tend to err in the direction of word inflation. I had to delete really, truly, and highly several times from this post. But because I’m sensitized to my personal tendency to overemphasize, I’m able to catch myself and remove that flaw from my writing.

(Confession: I did allow myself one well-placed really in this article—did you catch it?—even though it’s an inflation word. Remember: it’s perfectly fine to use both inflation words and hedge words so long as you do so judiciously and rarely. Like germs that are always with us, inflation words and hedge words only become a problem if they multiply.)

Below is a list I’ve compiled of common hedge words and inflation words. Can you think of any I missed?

Common Inflation Words

  • Very
  • Highly
  • Extremely
  • Literally
  • Truly
  • Really
  • Totally
  • Greatly
  • Key
  • Immediately
  • Suddenly
  • Precisely
  • Absolutely
  • Intrinsically
  • Very important to note
  • Specific key concept

Common Hedge Words

  • Usually
  • Generally
  • Relatively
  • Almost
  • At least
  • Nearly
  • Roughly
  • Typically
  • Potentially
  • Ultimately
  • Around
  • Approximately
  • Seems to
  • For the most part
  • More or less
  • On average
  • Nearly
  • In the neighborhood of
  • Upwards of

If you found this discussion helpful, you might enjoy another article I wrote about a related bad writing habit: Two Stammer Verbs to Avoid in Your Fiction.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.
Jessi Rita Hoffman

Jessi Rita Hoffman

Jessi Rita Hoffman edits manuscripts and coaches writers on development of their novels and nonfiction books. Her clients have won awards and book deals with major publishers. A former publishing house editor in chief, Jessi enjoys screenwriting in her spare time and has optioned one of her thriller scripts to Hollywood. Visit her website and writer’s craft blog or find her on Twitter: @JRHwords.

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40 Comments on "Hedge Words and Inflation Words: Prune Them From Your Writing"

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Patsy Trench

Excellent advice. I have more hedge words: rather, slightly, on the whole, sort of, you could say .. the list goes on. My writing is full of them. Heavy editing follows. Thank you.

Melissa

Nice list. I wanted to quibble with one on your hedge list: seemed to. In Third Limited, each scene is strictly in the perspective of one character. It’s common to, for example, say “The old man seemed nervous.” Yes, we can show nervous behavior, but sometimes it’s important for the pov character to notice and make judgments about other characters. To replace “seemed to” with a direct description is to jump into the other character’s pov.

Scott
Nonfiction writer here. I have an extreme tendency to do both, which I’ve recognized over the years. I try to be extremely precise, which drives the hedge words in particular. (See? “Particular” I overuse that word a lot.) Aside from an awareness of this tendency as I rewrite, I rely on a three-layered editing process using different software. After I’ve gotten the text as good as I can with multiple reviews/rewriting, I then: Run Word spell-check, which includes a few grammar suggestions. Just common sense to do that. Then I start up my Grammarly extension within Word and comb through… Read more »
Carrie Nichols

Scott, have you ever used SmartEdit? I use it and like it but was wondering if Hemingway is better or if they accomplish the same thing.

Scott
Never heard of SmartEdit before but just looked at their site. Both Grammarly and Hemingway do provide suggestions, which it appears that SmartEdit does not. Grammarly seems to me to be more focused on words and phrases. Hemingway considers entire paragraphs. I like the contrast between the two. Grammarly will point out that a particular adverb should be dropped, but Hemingway will tell you how many adverbs are contained within a sample of writing and whether it’s getting excessive. I learned not to put my entire piece of writing into Hemingway and then make changes and export it back out…turned… Read more »
Carrie Nichols

Thanks for the info! And you’re right, SmartEdit doesn’t make suggestions just points things out. I will check both Grammarly and Hemingway.

Carrie Nichols

Great article and a good reminder. I know about these words but it’s amazing how many can slip past even using SmartEdit. Thanks!

Morgan H.

So true! Always an important step.

Chiming in here to add my top two: ‘just’ and ‘a bit’.

I’m pretty atrocious with them, but now I know to go back through and clear those out.

Sheila

You didn’t need “explicitly.” If it’s “stated,” it’s explicit!

Kelly Kandra Hughes

As a recovering academic, I taught the necessity of using hedge words for years. I bet some of my former students can still hear me harping now, ” You can’t prove anything with statistics! ALWAYS HEDGE!” They’ve been my most difficult habit to break now that I’ve transitioned to fiction writing.

Cathy Shouse
Jessi, I enjoyed your article. Also, your answers to other comments have been helpful. I tend to take things literally, and am prone to remove all “bad” words, leaving my writing overly stark. (Can I use “overly?”) How do you think the importance of writing naturally plays into this discussion, if it does? There’s a flow that can be lost when we edit too much (and I’ve been accused of this). Do you think genre is a factor? As a romance writer, would it be okay to say, “Intuitively, she knew he couldn’t be serious, but she really wanted to… Read more »
Freddy G. Cabrera

Hey Jessi!

I love your blog post here!

This is such valuable education for the writers and bloggers. Using the right words and in the right context can make a difference in your content’s performance.

I was not paying very much attention to the words I use in my content until I came across this blog post. I’ve learned a lot here.

Thank you so much for sharing these valuable tips, Jessi!

Best regards! 😀

Julie H. Ferguson

Superb! Thanks!

Britta Jensen

Thanks very much for this excellent advice!

Desertphile
… unless you are a scientist and writing a science paper: then “hedge words” are mandatory. Science involves levels of confidence that to the non-scientists sounds “timid” (as the article used the word) even when high confidence (greater than 98%) and scientific consensus is being written about. Ms. Jessi Rita Hoffman’s advice does not apply to all forms of writing. For example, the world’s geophysicists have been convinced that human-caused climate change has happened, is happening, and is a major threat to social and civil well-being— with confidence greater than 98%: yet they still use words like “maybe” and “likely”… Read more »
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[…] we’re done writing, we need to clean up our manuscript. Jessi Rita Hoffman has hedge words and inflation words to beware of, Elisa Beatty tells us how to get tight without losing any of the story, Jami Gold […]

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Thonie Hevron

I write mystery novels featuring sheriff’s detectives. Their dialog must be concise and targeted. As a retired police dispatcher, I have to fight my natural tendency to “hedge.” I have a post-it list on my monitor and do a search for them at the end of my first draft. Now, I need to add more words. Thanks for the timely and informative post!

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[…] https://www.janefriedman.com/hedge-word-inflation-words-prune/ “As writers, we all know wordiness is something to avoid: never say in ten words what you can say in four. But while we get that in theory, it’s often hard, in practice, to produce tight writing. We look at the sentences on the page, suspecting they are verbose, but don’t know what to change or to eliminate. Learning that is part of the art and craft of writing, of course, and no one blog post can identify all the secrets. But as a book editor who sees lots of writers make many identical mistakes, I’d like to… Read more »
Wendy All

I was fortunate to take several classes with Lisa Medway through UCLA’s Writers’ Program. She called inflation words “Words with no nutritional value, like styrofoam peanuts that bloat your writing.” I keep this list next to my computer: HOWEVER, BUT, EVE, STILL, REALLY, JUST, SO, SUCH, MUCH, WELL, SOME, MORE, IN THE MEANTIME, MEANWHILE, ANYWAY, EVEN, VERY, ALWAYS, SOMETIMES. Thank you for the informative article. I have words to add to the list.

Jean Feingold

I cringe when I see the word “unexpectedly” in obituaries. Do we not expect everyone alive now to die at some point (although perhaps not on the day in question)? This is one case where the inflationary “suddenly” might be appropriate. As a non-fiction article writer whose editors set a word limit, I have become ruthless in eliminating unnecessary words of all types.

DeBonis Karen

Busted! I’m aware of inflation words and do a pretty good job (oops – hedging!) of avoiding them, but I’m guilty of overusing italics for emphasis. Thanks for the heads up.

Frank Parker

Great examples. Why is ‘Somewhat’ not included – that one is much used by some writers and I hate it!