Avoiding Filler Words
I've seen one or two articles recently about words to avoid or limit using when writing. Filler words. Being knee-deep in the process of polishing up a couple manuscripts myself, I decided to do my own take on these "bad words" and include some experience I've gained over these last few years (and 7 manuscripts).
The more you write, the more you come to realize that every word is critical. Concise writing is a staple of successful authors. It's really hard to get published or even get an agent if you like to ramble without purpose or throw adverbs around (I've done both). Sure, 100,000 words seems like a ton, but when writing a novel you're going to need those words - probably all of them - to tell your story. It's easy for the word count to balloon like a pregnant lady if you become too familiar with filler.
First thing's first. What are "filler words"? I've created a list that I'm going to share below. But they're called filler words because they fill up space and don't (typically) add value. A word that's serving a purpose isn't filler. But if the only purpose is that you like seeing it on the page, it might be.
Here's a good question to ask yourself when combing your writing: Can I get my point across without this word? Or...Does eliminating this word change the meaning of what I'm trying to say? Usually, the most concise way to say things without losing meaning is the best way. This doesn't mean making your prose robotic and lacking in description. But in my experience it's way easier to go overboard than to under deliver.
Occasionally I'll read a great book that throws the rules away and gets away with it. Lots of beginning writers want to write this book. It probably won't happen. Until you're J.K. Rowling writing the seventh Harry Potter book no sane editor is going to give you free reign. Best to detach yourself from the fantasy now.
Okay, let's get into it.
Telling Words: There's no better place to start. If "show don't tell" is a writer's golden rule, these words are the ones that get you in the dog house. Feel, See, Look, Hear, Know, Realize, Decide, Wonder, Remember, Think (in any tense).
I highlight every instance of bad words in my manuscript and go through them one by one. If I want one left in I need to justify to myself why. Telling words are some of the more dangerous on this list. The problem with telling words is that instead of the reader experiencing what the character experiences you're adding an extra layer. The reader is experiencing the writer experiencing what the character is experiencing (if that makes sense).
Example: Jack heard a storm coming. This sentence lets us know a storm is coming, but it's so lazy. Good writing hits the reader through Jack's point of view directly. Jack eyed darkening clouds as fiendish wind whipped through his hair. I didn't directly say a storm is coming, but my reader can infer this just like Jack does.
Adverbs: Anything ending in -ly. Really, Very, Suddenly, Instantly, Abruptly. Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs and express manner, place, time, level, degree etc. Put simply, they are modifiers. And too many of them makes for amateurish writing.
Why? Well, the English language has roughly one million words. I don't need to say the water is slightly hot when I can say it's lukewarm. I used one word instead of two and it sounds better. Some writers overload the adverbs because they don't have good command of the English language. In that case, get your word game up!
The other reason to avoid adverb overload is because a lot of times they aren't necessary. In the grand scheme of a novel nobody cares if the water was slightly warm or just warm. Your reader won't remember the distinction and it's a waste of their time. That's why adverbs should only be kept when their modification is important. When they...add value.
His eyes gradually adjusted to the low light. His eyes instantly adjusted to the low light. The distinction provided by these adverbs is important. The first example could be a normal human. The second could be the bionic man. But they both allow the reader to infer something. Letting readers infer things is good (and that's a topic for another day).
Almost, Rather, Somewhat: I call this grouping the "indecisive words". Sometimes they're useful, but most of the time they seem to make writing weaker without adding much value. That lands them smack dab in filler territory.
She was rather angry. The rather isn't needed unless you're doing dialogue for something set in Victorian England. It just isn't. Leaving these words out will make your writing more decisive and concise. Trust me, that's almost always a good thing.
The Remainders: These don't fall into any category, but they're still important so don't forget about them.
The: Some writers (me) have a tendency to use tons of "the". This is the most tedious filler to check for, but throughout a manuscript you'll find plenty of instances where "the" can be removed or exchanged.
Of: Same as above. "Of" often signals writing that can be made more concise. Example: She was quarterback of the team of football players. Fixed: She was the football team's quarterback.
Then: A classic filler. Many times it isn't necessary. Pay particular attention to sentences that start with "then". That's usually where it can be cut.
Just: I used to think "just" gave things a little more strength or oomph. At times there may be some truth to that (Just Do It). But most of the time, like the other fillers, it's a word that's better cut.
Down, Up: Most of the times these are implied. She sat down. She sat. It's easy to inadvertently include a bunch of "down" and "up" in your writing. It's often just as easy to get rid of them.
Start, Begin: He started to sweat. She began to cry. The first beads of sweat dotted his brow. Tears welled at the corners of her eyes. These two tie into lazy writing or "telling". Usually there's a better way to get your point across.
That wraps up the list. Remember, it's impossible to purge all of these from your writing, nor would you want to. In the span of several hundred words above I've probably broken every rule. The point is that you become aware of them and understand when they add value and when they don't. When they don't add value, they get the axe.
Thanks for reading. Be sure to comment below, subscribe to my site, and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to get in touch. I'm interested to hear about what you're working on too, so let me know or drop a link. Writers have to support one another!
- Charles Harned