I danced the can-can once and swore never to do it again. It was hell—spazzy, tiring, repetitious. I never knew that I would feel the same way twenty-five years later about a certain three-letter word.
We are gathered here today to talk about “can.”
“Can” is one of those sneaky words we all love to overuse in content, but we have no idea that we’re doing it habitually. By habitually, I mean 20+ can’s in a 1,000-word blog. This is a common and factual number I have seen while editing content over the years, with both less experienced and highly experienced content writers.
For those of you who want nothing more than to make your content punchy and pithy, your content just needs a good kick in the “can.”
Can is a Filter Word You Need to Filter Out
I used to think “can” was a filler word, but it’s actually considered a filter word. More commonly discussed in the realm of fiction writing, filter words are extra explanatory words that create a barrier between the reader and a character’s experience.
Removing filter words helps fiction writers “show not tell.” Having too many filter words causes disruption and distancing. Now you’re starting to see how “can” causes issues in the realm of content marketing.
Filter words often relate to the senses or thought processes (i.e. felt, noticed, smelled, realized), which are a more serious problem in fiction. But modal verbs like can/could and will/would also serve as filter words, and we use them in B2B content all the time.
Why do we use filter words so much in content marketing? Because filter words are part of everyday language. When used skillfully, filter words make your content sound more casual and conversational since we all love to say “can” just as much as we write it.
However, if you use an abundance of “can,” it’s distracting and weakens the impact of your message. This negative impact is the last thing you want when your organization is depending on content marketing to engage potential buyers.
When Can I Use Can?
You can’t. Just kidding.
Sometimes, you legitimately need a “can” or two or five. If you over-edit and try to get rid of every last “can,” your writing will sound unnatural and choppy (believe me, I’ve tried!).
“Can” works when you’re using it on purpose instead of accidentally. Using “can” purposefully in messaging means that someone has to make a choice or a mindset switch to achieve something.
I’m probably the last person on earth reading Chasing the Bright Side by Jess Ekstrom. But I’m finally reading it, and lo and behold, I saw a lot of “can’s” flying around the pages. This is a self-improvement book, so I’ll let it slide because “can” works well for this genre.
For example, Jess says “The world can be your oyster” instead of “The world is your oyster.” Meaning, there is no guarantee unless you make it happen. So, “can” demonstrates a “standing at the crossroads” type of moment. Cool.
In other cases, “can” is used to avoid guaranteeing a result. Hopefully, you’re not going there at all with your content, because that’s a slippery slope. Better to speak confidently through your writing by focusing on the promises you “can” keep, rather than being wishy-washy with empty promises propped up on a “can.”
So, How Many Can’s Can I Have?
As I mentioned earlier, I have seen 20+ can’s in 1,000-word blogs many, many times. Yes, that is a lot of “can” that needs to be shitcanned.
For a 1,000-word blog, I recommend having no more than 5 “can’s.” If your organization needs to be careful with legal liability, your content will contain infinitely more “can’s.” But, for the rest of us, we are unknowingly weakening our content by overusing “can.”
The best way to catch your “can” overuse is to dedicate one entire round of editing to support your “can” cause.
When you’re on your final content editing round, perform a “can” sweep by searching for “can’s” and removing or replacing them. In the next section, I’ll show you examples of how I’ve edited “can” content in the real world.
How to Ditch “Can” for Instantly Stronger Content
For instantly stronger content, I challenge you to ditch the “can” to give your content more of a can-do attitude. And, obviously, don’t cut corners by using “could” since that will only make things worse and we’re all working together right now to make content improvements.
Examples of Removing “Can”
Removing “can” is your best bet. See if that’s possible before bothering to find a replacement. It’s not as hard as it seems.
Can: How Care Coordination Can Impact Patient Outcomes
No Can: How Care Coordination Impacts Patient Outcomes
Can (2x): Quality data management can help increase revenue because it can help you create more effective marketing strategies based on real and relevant data.
No Can: Quality data management helps increase revenue because you create more effective marketing strategies based on real and relevant data.
Can: Process workflows can make financial planning and analysis a more collaborative experience.
No Can: Process workflows make financial planning and analysis a more collaborative experience.
Can (2x): Data transparency in healthcare can help improve patient engagement, outcomes, and health literacy because patients can regulate the data that goes into their records and correct any inaccuracies.
No Can: Data transparency in healthcare helps improve patient engagement, outcomes, and health literacy because patients regulate the data that goes into their records and correct any inaccuracies.
Can: We develop custom software to help you connect various software and data systems, so you can securely and efficiently collect, organize, and validate your data exactly the way your business needs.
No Can: We develop custom software to help you connect various software and data systems, so you securely and efficiently collect, organize, and validate your data exactly the way your business needs.
Can: Our experts can help you develop a comprehensive vision for effective financial planning, forecasting, and budgeting.
No Can: Our experts help you develop a comprehensive vision for effective financial planning, forecasting, and budgeting.
Can: Data quality can make all the difference in how you run the business and how successful the business is.
No Can: Data quality makes all the difference in how you run the business and how successful the business is.
Can: Low-quality data can have a negative impact on business processes and keep your team from achieving revenue targets.
No Can: Low-quality data has a negative impact on business processes and keeps your team from achieving revenue targets.
Can: When both client and server codes are written in C#, you can share codes and libraries to create single-page application (SPA) platforms.
No Can: When both client and server codes are written in C#, you share codes and libraries to create single-page application (SPA) platforms.
Examples of Replacing “Can”
When you attempt to replace “can,” it sounds clunky because the replacement is just a wordier way of saying “can.” In the examples below, might and able to are “can” workarounds, so use them occasionally to cut down on “can” repetition.
Another “can” workaround that is not included below is will, since will/would is also a filter word. Try to do better than will, which again probably means removing the “can” altogether.
Can: Making informed decisions can be more challenging than it needs to be when you’re dealing with disparate reports and spreadsheets.
No Can: Making informed decisions is more challenging than it needs to be when you’re dealing with disparate reports and spreadsheets.
Adverbs of Frequency (i.e. frequently, often, rarely, always)
Can: When executives make decisions based on reports pulled days or weeks before, they can miss key trends on the horizon.
No Can: When executives make decisions based on reports pulled days or weeks before, they frequently miss key trends on the horizon.
Can: Otherwise, even if your data management improves, your enterprise culture can suffer.
No Can: Otherwise, even if your data management improves, your enterprise culture might suffer.
Can: From these platforms, anyone with the right permissions can quickly and easily run queries for analysis without relying on IT every time they need updated data.
No Can: From these platforms, anyone with the right permissions is able to quickly and easily run queries for analysis without relying on IT every time they need updated data.
Example of Replacing and Removing “Can”
And, here’s a bonus round that shows a “can” replacement and removal all in one editing swoop.
Can: When real-time data from across the organization can be pulled into a report with a simple query, decision-makers can see the entire picture and make choices based on the most relevant data from every business unit.
No Can: When real-time data from across the organization is pulled into a report with a simple query, decision-makers see the entire picture and make choices based on the most relevant data from every business unit.
Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should
Filter words like “can” have a time and a place, but they shouldn’t be all over the place.
If I’ve done nothing else, at least I know that I won an important content battle today—you’re sick of the word “can” and you never want to use it again. That’s because I broke the world record and used it 104 times in this 1,600-word blog. Brutal, isn’t it?