Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

Um, you might want to know this

By · Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Um. It’s a word that fills time when someone is thinking while speaking. We hear it so often — and use it so often — that it can go unnoticed.

Other filler words, however, are not so subtle, particularly when used as a transition of sorts, at the start of someone’s answer to a question. Here are a few you might have heard spoken:

Does it matter that these words are used this way? In some cases, yes: If they are overused, if they are a distraction, if they inappropriately express a point of view. For example, when we hear “right,” we think “correct.”

Transition words in writing are just as important. Words that move a reader from one paragraph to the next must be neutral and unobtrusive. Consider these commonly used — overused — transitions:

Most of these words could be eliminated as transitions, and they would not be missed. That’s because they don’t tend to add anything to the meaning of the sentence. They are merely fillers. And two of them — “nevertheless” and “moreover” — could actually give the impression that the writer is mixing in opinion with fact.

Strive for original, strong transitions that will help understanding, not hinder comprehension. One way is to ask yourself these five simple questions when you are searching for a transition from one thought to the next — either in your writing or when you are editing the work of someone else:

  1. Do I understand the sequence of paragraphs?
  2. Am I confused?
  3. Could the paragraph stand alone without the transition?
  4. What is the purpose of the transition?
  5. Am I drawn to it as an aid or am I distracted by it?

We already have enough distractions. Eliminating a few short words can go a long way.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

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