Editing Tips #2: Filler Words

For my 2nd post on common editing issues, I’m going to talk about filler words.
When talking about filler in writing, editors are referring to words and phrases that add no additional meaning to a sentence. The sentence would function fine without these words.
Filler words dilute the impact of sentences. The extra words require your reader to mentally process more to get to the point of your sentence (you don’t want that).

Finally, they bloat your word count. It’s rare for writers to be too economical with their words; it’s far more common for them to struggle with excess. Every word you can delete from your manuscript without losing meaning is a word you want to murder.

What are some examples of filler words?
1) Sensory words. If your sentence includes a variant of see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, you may need to revise it.
A) Tanya saw Maria pass by her office.
B) Maria passed by Tanya’s office.

Which of these is better? Most of the time, B. Why? Unless it is crucial that we call out Tanya seeing this, it’s enough to say that the event happened. If the story is from Tanya’s perspective, we must assume that she has seen everything she is reporting about.

2) Appears, seems, looks, etc. This is the same issue as with the sensory words above. Usually, we use these to indicate that the speaker isn’t sure of something. But we don’t need to do that.
A) It looks to me like you’re heading to the office.
B) Are you heading to the office? | You’re heading to the office.
Unless it’s truly crucial that we specify the speaker isn’t sure about their assertion, leave these words out.

3) Is (and it’s variants). We try to avoid using is as the primary verb of a sentence. It lacks impact and dilutes meaning.
A) The focus of our group is bird watching.
B) Our group focuses on bird watching.
Which of these is better? Almost always B. Why? Focus is a much more impactful verb than is. Also, B uses fewer words to accomplish the same purpose.

4) Adverbs ending in -ly. Adverbs can add useful detail to a sentence, but more often than not, they end up telling the reader instead of showing them.
A) “I’ve had it!” said Vivian, furiously.
B) “I’ve had it!” Vivian stomped down the hall to her room, slamming the door behind her.
Sentence B describes what Vivian did, which makes it clear she was angry.

5) Simply, basically, highly, perhaps, maybe, somehow, sort of, kind of, a little, clearly, obviously, definitely, just, merely, absolutely, naturally, really, very, quite. We already talked about adverbs, but there is a subset that’s particularly problematic.
A) “Simply turn the allen wrench three times, counterclockwise, until widget C aligns with doohickey A.”
B) “Turn the allen wrench three times, counterclockwise, until widget C aligns with doohickey A.”
What purpose did “simply” serve in the sentence? None. And worse, it might offend or frustrate your readers. What if they don’t think it’s simple or have difficulty with it? The same is true for the other words I highlighted. We can’t assume something is basic, clear, obvious, or definite to other people.

6) That, of (or all of). When writing any manuscript, viciously prune for this word. If a sentence is as clear without “that” is it is with it, get rid of it.
A) Pamela thought that Gaurav took her lunch money.
B) Pamela thought Gaurav took her lunch money.
Sentence B is as clear as A, so there’s no reason to use that.
A) All of Myron’s writing needs revision.
B) Myron’s writing needs revision.

7) So, mostly, most times, in order to, often, oftentimes. These are leading words, and most of the time you can leave them out.
A) Often, the best thing we can do is sleep on it.
B) The best thing we can do is sleep on it.
People use these words as a transition, but they aren’t necessary.

8) In my humble opinion, needless to say, for what it’s worth. Do we need to tell people our opinion is humble? If it’s needless to say, why say it? For what it’s worth means nothing.
A) In my humble opinion, Charles is an ass.
B) Charles is an ass.
It’s clearly your opinion of him.

9) Actual. Doesn’t add anything to a sentence.
A) Henry found the actual weapon Christina used to murder Fannie.
B) Henry found the weapon Christina used to murder Fannie.
People sometimes use actual when they want to emphasize the novelty or strangeness of a situation. But the situation should make that obvious.

10) Redundant words. Advance warning (warning is always advance); add an additional (just use add); added bonus (a bonus is, by definition, added); absolutely essential (essential is already superlative).
A) He had advance warning about the attack.
B) He had ample warning about the attack.
If the goal is to show how much warning he had, use a more specific word.

11) Redundant prepositions. Meet with, bought up, sold off, this time around. In all of these, the preposition adds nothing.
A) Tangina sold off all her worldly possessions.
B) Tangina sold all her worldly possessions

These are just a sample of some of the worst offenders. When editing your writing (or someone else’s), mercilessly trim any word that isn’t necessary to make your sentence clear. Don’t do this to the point where the sentence looks like it was written by a robot, and it isn’t as crucial to do this in dialogue (it should sound like real people).

About Eytan Bernstein

40. Bay Area-based writer/editor/RPG designer.
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