Whittle Your Words (Without Getting Word Chips Caught in Your Keyboard)

27.09.2020 |

Episode #9 of the course Humor boosters: Lighten and tighten your writing by Gay Merrill


The last lesson showed you how to take those tired expressions and twist them using fun wordplay.

Today, you learn to whittle your words like Jed Clampett on a rerun episode of the Beverly Hillbillies. (“Weeeell, doggies!” Jed would say.)

Fun fact: The Beverly Hillbillies was an American sitcom that ran from 1962 to 1971 and featured a patriarchal character named Jed Clampett. Jed liked to whittle. (You’ll have to figure out why I chose the title whittle your words. Hint: It’s another humor-boosting technique.)

What great comedians and humor writers know is the craft of editing. To get to the funny bit fast, they use precision and economy of words.

So, for you to add a level of comedic impact, you need to cut out the excess words that slow down and hence bore, your reader.

Here are five ways to whittle your words.


Axe the Adverbs

We use adverbs often to modify verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

You can spot many adverbs by their ending. Look for words ending in -ly, for example actually, basically, certainly, especially, really, simply.

Other common adverbs are the words just, pretty, very, and quite.

Adverbs add clutter and weaken your writing.


• When you spot an adverb, read the sentence without it. If the sentence retains its meaning, axe the adverb.

• Replace the verb+adverb or adjective+adverb pair with a more descriptive word. For example…

Verb+adverb: instead of ran quickly, try scurried, scrambled, bolted…

Adjective+adverb: instead of very pretty, try gorgeous, eye-catching, stunning…


Remove the Word “That”

The word “that” slips into our writing out of habit (sneaky) but is often unnecessary. Here are two examples:

• Necessary: She wants to take that course.

• Unnecessary: She thought that the course was brilliant.

Correction: For each instance, you use the word “that”, read your sentence without it. Does the sentence make sense without the word “that”? If yes, then leave it out.

Note: Use the word “who” instead of “that” when you refer to people. For example, I have relatives that who live in British Columbia.


Cut the Confidence Killers

The words we choose to communicate indicate our certainty and conviction. Here are two types of confidence killing words and phrases:

• Weasel words such as sort of, kind of, perhaps, in my opinion, maybe, like.

These words make your writing sound wishy-washy. Be definite. Take a stance. We know it’s your opinion if you’re writing it.

• Thinking words such as I think, I wonder, I believe.

When you start your ideas with thinking words, you disempower them.

Instead of “I think” we should take a break now, say “Let’s take a break”. Or try a question, “Who’s ready for a break?”

Correction: Eliminate weasel words. Be direct or use questions instead of thinking words.


Replace the Word “Thing”

We default to the word thing, and its cousin something, for lack of a better, precise word. But the thing is abstract. And something is no more concrete.

Example: I’m editing my writing using things humor techniques to make my readers laugh.

Correction: Be specific. What is the “thing” you’re writing about? Do your research and find the precise word.


Eliminate Empty Filler Words

Here are two types of empty filler words you can trim to strengthen your writing:

Flabby expressions that bog down your writing such as…

• All of

• As a matter of fact

• Each and every day

• As far as

• At all times

• As yet

• In the process of

• For the most part

• At this point in time

• During the course of

• For all intents and purposes

Redundant expressions that contain a word that repeats the meaning of another word, for example, free gift. The word free isn’t necessary because the word gift implies free. Here are some other redundant expressions. The strikethrough word is unnecessary:

Actual fact

• Advance forward

Added bonus

• Assemble together

Correction: Eliminate flabby expressions and redundant words.

You now have five simple ways to make your writing crisp. Edit your writing to eliminate adverbs, the word “that”, weasel words, thinking words, and empty filler words.



How many excess words can you find in your writing? Use the checklist in this lesson to edit your writing sample for these types of words:

1. Adverbs.

2. The word “that”.

3. Weasel words and thinking words.

4. The word thing (and something).

5. Flabby expressions and redundant words.

One more lesson to go in this course and it will add another technique borrowed from comedy. Maybe you’ve seen it before.


Recommended book

The Little Red Writing Book by Brandon Royal


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