Are Vampire Words Sucking the Life Out of Your Writing?

Are Vampire Words Sucking the Life Out of Your Writing?

Reader Comments (100)

  1. Wow… fun way to apply a very important principle. Writing actively always makes your readers more interested. The passive voice is weak, repetitive, and boring.

  2. This may good advice for the blogger. But we marketing copywriters are forced to use qualifiers to avoid the accidental creation of an express warranty. Marketing copy that definitively states, “You will receive this benefit,” obligates our clients to deliver that benefit every single time, without fail, lest they be subject to legal action.

    As defined by Wikipedia, “a warranty is an assurance by one party to the other party that certain facts or conditions are true or will happen; the other party is permitted to rely on that assurance and seek some type of remedy if it is not true or followed.”

    So if your marketing copy promises 38 miles per gallon in city driving, and the consumer only gets 37, the consumer could have grounds to sue the car manufacturer. Hence, “Your mileage may vary.”

  3. This reminds me of another post I liked on copyblogger – “Why You’re Too Qualified and Respectful to Produce Great Content.”

    Writing boldly takes practice (and @Kathleen – you may not always be legally permitted to write boldly) but it reads so much better when you do.

  4. Kathleen’s right about the need to sometimes qualify for legal reasons related to false advertising and misrepresentation.

    It’s also true for lawyers, where the answer is always “it depends.”

    But Ali caught me writing like a lawyer for no good reason with the inclusion of “generally” in her example… good catch.

    I might rewrite it this way:

    “Effective persuasion is an exercise in creating a win-win situation.”

    More precise, but also more powerful that what I had originally written.

  5. What Kathleen and Brian said are so true, nothing worse than someone or something that does not deliver (costly, too). But I loved your post: just get to the point and trim the fat. I’m a blunt, tell-it-like-it-is girl. Very creative, and amusing post. 😀

  6. Great post, Ali. Time for me to go back through some posts (and look at those waiting in the pipeline) and plunge a stake through the hearts of those “little” suckers. 🙂

  7. Wow. I really wanted to dislike this post purely based on Copyblogger ‘taking metaphors too far’… but it’s actually very poignant. I often find myself talking my ideas down with qualifiers and then remove a bunch of them from my final post almost accidentally.

    So… point well made. Vampires? What else would I expect here?

  8. I do use these “vampire” words when there IS actually a possibility, or rather a probability, of happening something, but when writing copy for a client, these are dangerous expressions. Even when you’re trying to convince people you should avoid them. Good points Ali.

  9. I love the vampire emphasis. White was writing in the 1950s but vampires and vampire words have been around for longer than that. 😉

    Thanks for the great refresher, every piece of writing can use a little staking.

  10. Thanks for the reminders — helpful and fun! I may share with my kids, 12 and 14. Your voice is clearer and more palatable than what they read in the usual grammar book.

  11. Brilliant post Ali.
    Removing unnecessary words before you post can feel like you’re removing the personality from a piece. But it makes such a difference to the quality, it has to be worthwhile.

  12. This is something I need to work on myself. It’s not always as a filler but just the way I say things. But I agree the sentence comes off much stronger without it. Thanks!

  13. (As well as White’s “Rather, very, little, pretty”, there’s a few other words you MIGHT recognize in your own copy. Here’s a few examples:”)

    or simply:

    As well as White’s “Rather, very, little, pretty”, eliminate the following vampires from your copy:


  14. On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest? That’s an attention-grabber. I will pay closer attention to my blog titles in the future. Thanks also for your explanation on how to spot those wishy-washy vampire words.

  15. Thanks for the comments, all, glad you enjoyed this!

    @Karlil – The vampire bandwagon seems to be the one to jump on at the moment…

    @Seth – Completely agree with you about active/passive voice. I write fiction as well as non-fiction, and keeping it in the active voice makes a huge difference to how engaging a story is.

    @Kathleen – Thanks for adding that, it’s a crucial qualification to what I was saying in the post. Yes, there will definitely be times when qualification is necessary. Don’t get sued for the sake of writing a brilliant sentence!

    @Sarah and @Justin – Thanks! 🙂

    @edave and @Jim – I might have a spare stake lying around…

    @Jeffrey – Yes, I loved Pace’s post too, and found her examples especially helpful.

    @Brian – If even a copywriting legend like you can fall prey to the occasional vampire-word, it makes us mortals feel a little less bad… 😉

    @Beth – Thanks! And I agree, I hate seeing a post headline which promises the world – only for the article not to live up to it.

    @Mark – I was starting to think I’d gone rather over the top myself! I think the use of metaphors on Copyblogger is one of the reasons that their blog posts tend to stick in my mind, though. Glad you enjoyed mine 🙂

    @Amrit – Yes, there are times when qualifiers are appropriate. Most people overuse them, though!

    @Natalie, @dinu, @Kulbir – Thanks!

    @Mr Uku – I’d argue that, in some cases, removing unnecessary words can enhance a writer’s style. These words tend to be generic, filler ones that can be replaced with something much more individual and interesting.

    @Liberation – I definitely overuse “quite”, it’s a bad habit of mine!

    @Cherie – Wow, I’d be delighted if you want to share this with your kids! Learning how to write well should never be something dry and dull. Plus, I think something learned in a spirit of fun and enjoyment tends to “stick” better.

    @Chris – Yes, I think a lot of people write how they speak – and these fillers and qualifiers creep in.

    @Shane – You see how sneaky those vampire-words are? They even infilitrated my article! I’m sharpening a stake right now…

    @Em – You’re welcome!

  16. (White was writing back in the 1950s, though.)
    White wrote back in the 1950s, though

    (And they need to be stopped.)
    And you must stop them.

    (These are all qualifiers: wishy-washy qualifiers at that.)
    These qualifiers are wishy-washy at best.

    (Sure, you MIGHT risk a few pedantic types taking issue in the comments – but you’ll be keeping the rest of your readers gripped.)
    Sure, you risk offending a few pedantic types, but you’ll grip the rest of your readers.

    (When you edit your copy, hone in on those words that are sucking your sentences dry.)
    When editing, spot words that suck your sentences dry.

    (If you take a word out, would the sentence still make sense?)
    Would the sentence still make sense if you ommited a word?

    (“Manipulative” isn’t grammatically essential, but it makes the meaning clearer.)
    “Manipulative” isn’t grammatically essential, but it clarifies the meaning.

    (When you’re not sure with a word like “generally”, ask yourself whether it makes the sentence stronger, or whether it’s draining its life blood.)
    If words like “generally” make you uncertain, consider whether they strengthen or drain the sentence of its life blood)

    (“Generally” is the one word that COULD BE cut, to make the sentence read “Persuasion is an exercise in creating a win-win situation”.)
    You could cut “generally”, to make the sentence read “Persuasion is an exercise in creating a win-win situation”.

    There, I just saved you from 44 total word-count vampires! 😉

    ps. Welcome to the CB tribe btw.

  17. “Shane Arthur, Vampire-Word Slayer” has a sort of ring to it…

    Great job! Next time I’m trying to cut something to meet a word limit, I’ll know who to call… 😉

    Thanks for the welcome, too, it’s an amazing feeling to be one of the tribe on a blog I’ve loved for so long. 🙂

  18. This is fine for informal blogging but it won’t work for scholarly research. You can’t make unverified claims there without qualifying them. Unless you’re 100% sure you must use “may,” “almost,” “generally,” etc.

    The same holds true for high school and college essays.

    Most of us aren’t writing those, but you have to use a separate mode for blogging than you do for formal writing.

  19. Being pedantic for a moment,
    (White was writing back in the 1950s, though.)
    White wrote back in the 1950s, though
    do not mean the same thing.

    ‘Was writing back in the 1950s’ means that he may also have written before or after the 1950s.
    ‘White wrote back in the 1950s’ means that he only wrote in the 1950s.

    Otherwise, as Ali wrote, great job!

    Ali, thanks for this post – I run courses on English writing skills for non-native speakers and if you think we can write with padding, try teaching the French or Germans!

  20. Your advice for decreasing the use of qualifiers is great!

    Under the heading, ‘How to Spot Vampire Words’, the words ‘there’s’ and ‘here’s’ should be ‘there are’ and ‘here are’. The contractions you used were for ‘there is’ and ‘here is’; it wouldn’t be correct to say ‘there is a few other words’ or ‘here is a few examples’. ‘Is’ agrees with singular, ‘are’ with plural.

  21. @Richard – And don’t forget that, for many students, padding out essays with plenty of qualifiers is a great way to reach the word/page target (I know I was guilty of that a few times in school!) 😉

    But, more seriously – I agree with you, and you’re making the same point Kathleen did earlier in the comments. Some writers have good reason to pick their words carefully.

    @nic – Yes, sometimes getting over-zealous about cutting words can actually alter the meaning. (Why didn’t I come up with that defence on my own behalf..? ;-))

    My mum teaches non-native speakers too: a challenging but rewarding job, I think, with all the idiosyncrasies of the English language!

  22. Richard, no such qualification for scholarly writing is necessary, because that’s not what this blog is about. 😉

    Melissa, a lot of conversational copywriters will break the rule you point out. You’re absolutely correct that it should technically be “here are” instead of “here’s,” and yet if you listen to the way people speak (even highly educated people), they’ll often break that rule verbally.

    It’s a stylistic choice for some (I’m pretty sure Ali knows the rule), so that’s why I didn’t change it. And yes, Shane DMed me on Twitter to try to get me to change it. 😉

  23. @Brian Clark: No, it says “Writing” not “Blogging” in the title. Many of us have to write essays for college still, or for our jobs, where making claims that are false will not fly. A large portion of copywriting is for sales or advertising. There are laws about truth in advertising—you can’t make statements that are clearly false. This post is bad advice for a lot of writers.

    “7 Reasons Why List Posts Will Always Work” and “Why You Can’t Make Money Blogging” are completely falsifiable. I could easily find a list post that has received no traffic or a blog that makes thousands of dollars per month. It would be completely unacceptable to market a cell phone with the headline “The Cell Phone that Always Works.” If you want to talk about writing copy, you have to talk about advertising and press releases.

    This post requires a codicil stating that it only applies to blogging and informal writing.

  24. When I think of vampires, I think of stealthy creatures that avoid the truths that come out in the light of day. Not only is this tactic not strong, it is actually harmful to the readers that you’re trying to serve. I learned this the hard way.

  25. Hi Ali,

    Thanks for the tips. I did make this mistake of trying to be general. Lesson learned and I will definitely not make the same mistake again.


  26. @Melissa – As Brian says, it’s the way I talk – though I do usually try to edit “here’s a few” etc in writing unless it’s a very informal piece, so well caught! (Brian, please do feel free to change it, if you want.)

    @Richard – A lot of writing advice will apply in one context and not another. Of course qualifiers will be necessary and legitimate for some writers – but it’s still worth checking a piece for any unnecessary ones.

    @Pace – Thanks! Your piece inspired me…

  27. I’d argue that “Here’s a few” is a lot tighter than “here are a few”. Saying “Here are a few” *really* slows the writing pace, which I find unpleasant.

    I didn’t notice a grammatical issue until it was pointed out. Not sure what I would have selected had I caught the grammatical mistake while writing it.

    Am totally sure, however, what Ali chose makes the writing flow in a far superior way.

    Second thoughts, even if I knew it wasn’t grammatically precise, I’d go with Ali’s choice. “Here are” really irks me in this case.

  28. I’d agree with @Bamboo, “here are” is correct but it doesn’t flow as well, it sounds stiff and stilted in this particular spot.

    Ali, I thought this was great. Your examples show why this is a particularly important point in a headline.

    The “Why You Can’t Make Money Blogging” post is not, in fact, about why you can’t make money blogging. (That would be a pretty weird post here, now wouldn’t it?) The job of the headline is always to get the reader to click through and read the first line or two of the post. The more nuanced part of the argument comes in the body of the post itself.

    I spent years in the corporate world battling with corp. counsels who put qualifiers in our copy, and learned a couple of valuable lessons. The first was never to turn in mealy-mouthed copy, because the message always gets softened by legal no matter what it looks like when you create it. The second was that legal’s first impulse is not necessarily the version you have to end up with. It’s their job to keep your company out of trouble. It’s your job as an advertising writer to sell product. Yes, “your mileage may vary” is always in the ad, but it’s never in the headline.

  29. @Bamboo – Thanks, glad it read well for you! I think “Here are” sounds stilted, and I often look for an alternative way to introduce examples.

    @Sonia – Thanks for adding the expertise on corporate copy! I did a very small amount of writing in my tech support job, and sometimes needed weasly words when writing things like “there may have been a slight error in the program” 😉 (The passive voice is your friend when you’re denying all responsibility!)

    I didn’t know that about the legal team; good to hear that us copywriters aren’t about to get anyone sued!

    @Shane – I’m much better at editing and proofing other people’s work too. It’s so easy to let your eyes glide over your own mistakes and odd turns of phrase!

  30. Just the other day I was proofing a real-life vampire’s article on vampire leisure activities. He wrote, “As vampires, we like to eat vampire potato chips.”

    I saved him two words by rewriting it, “As vampires, we like to eat scabs.”


  31. Brian, thanks for the response. I know that ‘here’s’ and ‘there’s’ are commonly used substitutions. I figured that Ali knew the rule too. It’s just one of those shortcuts that, while working in favor of flow (tip-of-the-hat to @Bamboo), grates on the ear. I also flinch when I hear it in spoken form.

    Ali, I will incorporate the lessons about avoiding vampires in an upcoming web marketing campaign! Thanks.

  32. Try “here are” and “there are”. “Here’s” and “There’s” are NOT popular substitutions, they are grammatically incorrect the way you used them. “Is” is singular, “Are” is plural. “Here’s” and “There’s” soured this article for me. You are a good blogger, but your grammar skills could use some work.

    (Just a note, I use common lingo in my copy to connect with my readers, but even if you do that, you’ve still gotta make sure you are grammatically correct. Or you sound like you’s neva been to college.)

  33. Oops, my bad. I see you’ve already heard about “here are” and “there are”. I’m one of those weird people who find incorrect grammar equal to a pebble in my shoe. Article content itself is highly applicable to bloggers.

  34. Richard, with all due respect, what part of “Copyblogger” or “Copywriting tips for online marketing success” indicates we tackle so-called “scholarly writing?” Do you honestly mean to tell me you don’t look at the context of the publication you’re reading for semantic cues?

  35. Thanks for the information. I’m trying hard to make my content compelling and I really enjoy reading your blog. Very insiteful.

  36. @Sonia Simone,

    I spent 7 years at a direct marketing agency writing content for big technology companies. Everything I wrote went through Legal–and depending on the company–a committee of approvers at various layers of the organization.

    I referred to this process as “putting copy through the blander,” because invariably, my spicy, delicious, chunky copy was chopped, diced, and finally pureed by the approval process, leaving unpalatable copy with no texture or verve. Often, what came out of the “blander” was the copywriting equivalent of baby food.

    When I write for myself, I spice it up (although, admittedly, I still use a lot of qualifiers.) But when I write for clients, I do so with their approval process and legal issues in mind.

  37. Ali,
    Good read. I’m working this habit in my writing.
    My suggestion: reread copy before you push publish. Wait 10 minutes or clear your head with alternate material.

  38. @Kathleen, vampires don’t scare me, but you just made a chill run down my spine. I definitely remember those layers and layers of approvals. (“The blander” is a great term.) Aiiiiiieeeeeee. Maybe some day Joss Whedon will do a really clever horror TV show about corporate approval processes.

  39. Here’s a little RULE OF THUMB for making sure you’re not using qualifying language:

    * If it reads like it could be used by a politican, it’s probably got too many qualifiers! *

    I remember reading John Kerry’s book back in 2003 and I really think it could have won an award for “most adjectives and adverbs per words” in a book.

  40. Great post. I am constantly stalking the weasel words, and they’re not easy to eradicate. One thing I try to remember to do is read my copy aloud before submitting. Invariably, if I don’t, there’s a revolting weasel word lurking in the verbiage.

  41. Mark Twain said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

    Great article.

  42. Now, I have to triple check my posts (one for word errors, second for sentence structure, and third for this…) before publishing it…-_-
    but I’m somehow glad to know that I now know the way to improve my writing.

  43. @Shane Arthur – If you’re proof-reading for vampires, you’re braver than me… 😉

    @Melisa – Good luck with the web marketing campaign!

    @Sami – And good luck to you with spotting those sneaky words!

    @Malinda – I know just how you feel – I get very twitchy about people misusing “effect” and “affect”. I should have rewritten that sentence to “Take these examples” or something that avoided the dilemma between awkward written language and incorrect grammar!

    @Kathleen – Your comment about the “blander” made me laugh! When I worked in tech support, I was told I needed to write in a more “formal” (read: boring) way when communicating with clients – which makes it hard to build up a rapport.

    @Todd – Yes, I find that letting a piece of writing “sit” before editing helps me spot the dodgy bits…

    @Jo – I’ve found Copyblogger an invaluable source of tips on compelling content. (You might also want to check out Sonia’s blog, Remarkable Communication, and her free email courses – packed with great tips and advice.)

    @The Big Blue Frog – Ah, I love that quote!

    @Janice – Reading aloud works for me, too. I’ve often read fiction aloud at a writing circle, and it’s surprising how many times I cringe at my own writing…

    @Lone Wolf – Great rule of thumb there! I think any writing that sounds like a politician needs to die, fast.

    @Article Marketing Superhero – Yes, I agree that new writers tend to fall prey to the vampire words. Using a lot of qualifiers and hedging around the point can come across as unconfident.

    @Andi – Sorry to have created more work for you! 😉 I’m sure your finished articles will be worth it, though.

    @Aminul – It makes me sad when I see bloggers who clearly have no interest in good writing, only in making a quick buck. Poor writing that the author clearly didn’t care about is a painful thing to read … plus, I feel sorry for anyone who thinks blogging is a quick and easy path to riches!

  44. I love how cutting words *out* of a sentence will actually make it stronger. That is exactly why good writing, is mostly rewriting.

    Language at its best is almost always lean and *always* efficient.

  45. I tend to (almost said “usually”) avoid sentenc-specific articles in favor of more structurally-oriented stuff, but this one grabbed me with the header and then delivered. Much to learn here , and like Ali told Brian, none of us are immune to getting sucked dry with unfortunate word choices. Thanks for this, Ali.

  46. First time here. (Hi, everybody.) I sense a bunch of kindred spirits. I use the more prosaic “concise writing,” but your guideline (“if you take out the word, does it change the meaning?”) Is practically word for word what I say.

  47. @Richard – I need to read aloud more often. The ear seems to catch problems that the eye misses!

    @Amit – Yes, I’ve often found that cutting words makes a piece stronger and more powerful.

    @Igor – Thanks very much! 🙂

    @Larry – Glad you enjoyed this one! I tend to revise fiction by rewriting for structure (“the big picture”) then honing in on sentence-level stuff. I’m lazier with non-fiction (I tell myself it more often comes out right the first time…)

    @Rogers – Welcome! Glad you’re feeling at home 🙂

  48. Ali, are you by any chance a Freelance Folder reader? Plagiarizing a title is not good mojo, particularly not for copyblogger! Let me point you into the right direction if you don’t have a clue what I mean:

    Are Vampire Clients Sucking the Life Out of Your Business? – the article is dated August 24.

    Now you see, the similarity between these two titles (yours and Laura Spencer’s) is too close to be accidental.

    Is it a safe bet to say that only your title is plagiarized, or shall I dig deeper? Very disappointing to see such practices at Copyblogger!

  49. @Michaela – I am indeed a big fan of and a subscriber to Freelance Folder – I’ve written several guest posts for them, and I’m on friendly terms (and have had some professional dealings with) the Freelance Folder editor, Mason Hipp.

    However, I sent Brian this guest post on August 20th, four days before Laura’s (excellent!) post was published on Freelance Folder. I didn’t even know Brian would be publishing it until it went live yesterday!

    Perhaps Laura’s as much of a vampire fan as me? Or perhaps we’re just two great freelance writers who’ve learnt top-notch headline writing skills from Copyblogger, jumping on the same cultural trend? 😉

    (I’d be more than happy for you to email Brian about the date of my submission, by the way, or I can send you a screenshot of my “sent” folder. Trust me, my photoshopping skills are non-existent! You can find my contact details by clicking on my name and going to my website – including my email here gets my comment held for moderation, and I wanted to reply to you promptly.)

    On a side note, I know that many writers use headlines from the Digg front page or from magazines and “twist” them to their niche, and, whilst I’m no expert, I don’t believe this could constitute plagiarism.

  50. @Michaela, I can vouch for the fact that Ali sent me the post on the 20th (we have an editorial calendar, so there’s always a lag time between submission and posting).

    I’ve seen these weird coincidences more than once. It’s unsettling, because people always assume the worst. I’ve had to learn that synchronicity does indeed occur in this world (even when I think people are ripping me off).

  51. Wow, that’s an amazing coincidence.

    I’ll echo Brian’s words. I was in a Barnes & Noble last night and the place is wall-to-wall vampires–they’re a major part of the zeitgeist at the moment. “Sucking the life out of” is a natural way to translate the metaphor to one’s topic.

    A Google search tells me Buzznet also has a post on “Are Vampires Sucking the Life out of Popular Media,” Wine Enthusiast has “Are Critics Sucking the Life out of Wine” bringing vampires into the body copy, an investment blog talking about vampires sucking the life out of people’s portfolios, etc.

  52. Great Post. I wonder whether there’s a way to set your spellchecker in your favorite editor to highlight these vampire words. Can I take the words “generally” and “usually” out of my dictionary? That way they get flagged by the editor.


  53. Valuable post! It makes sense. What I find irritating, however, are too dang many links to this list & that list. I realize they are put there to help us – give us more good info – but they are distracting, because I want to follow them all so I won’t miss out on more tips, etc., so I get this feeling of overwhelm & “often” click off the whole post. I didn’t do that today, but was tempted to.

  54. I’m sorry — but this post is unintentionally ironic. You’re talking about unnecessary words, but your last sentence is:

    Cut those words right out of your copy and don’t look back.

    Did you really need “right” in that sentence?

    And in your bio: “Ali Hale occasionally gets some writing done” — Wouldn’t “Ali Hale occasionally writes” have worked just as well?

    I’m just sayin’…

  55. I don’t think “occasionally gets some writing done” and “occasionally writes” are the same at all. 🙂

  56. @The Story Woman – I do sympathise with how you feel about links within posts – I always want to read EVERYTHING and I can easily end up getting sidetracked! I’ve found that opening multiple tabs (I use Firefox) means I can line up “extras” to read once I’ve finished the post I’m on.

    @mightyspear – I think you’re right about the “right”… 😉 Like Sonia, though, I’d argue that “occasionally gets some writing done” is exactly what I wanted to say in the context!

  57. Bloggers can get away with tell-as-it-is writing. I doubt one writing an article can be such direct. Copy writing sometimes demands that you give only enough that cannot land you into courts.
    Who is this Shane Arthur lest he sucks the blood out of my comment.

  58. Having to write effective copy with less and less character spaces has certainly developed into an art form all it’s own. On Twitter I have also experimented with varying upper and lower case, to grab attention(since it’s the only formatting we have control over) and with keyboard art to fill in any gaps (which I am not really good at).

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