All writers want their prose to read smoothly and have the reader fully engaged without being pulled from the story due to an overabundance of unnecessary words that make sentences read clunkier.
These unnecessary words are often referred to as “filler words.” Filler words aren’t necessarily “bad” words, and they have their place in the craft of writing. However, many writers use these words copiously throughout their manuscripts when they aren’t strictly necessary.
Now, sometimes extra filler words can be used in places like dialogue to make it feel more authentic to today’s modern culture, but the narration doesn’t require the same strategy.
Whether you are pursuing traditional- or self-publication, all writers need to be at least moderately aware of the word count of their manuscripts. Cutting back on filler words can often be what writers need to lessen their overarching word count.
Here are filler words you will want to consider using less frequently in your manuscript.
Just / That / Then:
Usually, these words are plunked in a sentence and don’t add value. Often, if these words are removed from the sentence, the meaning remains the same. If that’s the case, remove them.
(*Notice my last sentence contained the word “that.” If you remove “that” from the sentence, it wouldn’t make sense [If the case, remove them?]. Therefore, it is necessary and fine in this instance.)
With Filler Word: Just when he thought that he’d escaped, a hand seized him from behind.
No Filler Word: When he thought he’d escaped, a hand seized him from behind.
Very / Really / Much:
These filler words often don’t add any value to whatever you are describing.
With Filler Word: He was very tall.
No Filler Word: He was tall.
This word can be used in similes to great effect, but it can also be used as a crutch word in sentences lacking a written comparison. In addition, consider if your simile can be swapped to a metaphor and have the same effect.
Get / Got:
These words can often be swapped out with an active verb, which can create better visuals for the reader.
With Filler Word: He got the ball.
No Filler Word: He grabbed the ball.
Only / Even:
These words are usually used for additional emphasis in narration when they aren’t necessary.
With Filler Word: It was only then he realized he’d been tricked.
No Filler Word: It was then he realized he’d been tricked.
Absolutely / Completely / Definitely / Literally / Totally:
In general, proceed with caution with words ending in “ly” (adverbs). Usually, they block up the prose and make the story read clunkier. Like most filler words, they usually aren’t necessary.
With Filler Word: Grabbing my boss’ folder, I hurried toward the elevator, thinking it would be absolutely fine. I would bring the files back before he even knew anything was missing.
No Filler Word: Grabbing my boss’ folder, I hurried toward the elevator, thinking it would be fine. I would bring the files back before he even knew anything was missing.
Certainly / Probably:
These two words lack decisiveness. They can be used in dialogue to convey a character’s uncertainty if the scene calls for it, but they often aren’t necessary in the narration.
With Filler Word: She thought she could probably do it.
No Filler Word: She thought she could do it.
The phrasing “thought she could” conveys her lack of confidence to do whatever the activity is. There is no need for the word “probably” in this instance.
Currently / Now:
Sometimes, conveying the immediacy of the scene, action, or moment is necessary. However, it’s often sufficient to simply describe what a character is doing without indicating it’s happening at present.
With Filler Word: He had kissed her, and to her surprise she had kissed him back. Now, she didn’t know what to think. Could he be the monster she had originally thought?
No Filler Word: He had kissed her, and to her surprise she had kissed him back. She didn’t know what to think. Could he be the monster she had originally thought?
In my opinion, this example could go either way (with or without the filler word).
Here’s another example:
With Filler Word: Currently, she stood at the edge of the field, wondering if she should continue on or turn back.
No Filler Word: She stood at the edge of the field, wondering if she should continue on or turn back.
Actually / Basically / Practically / Simply / Truly / Virtually:
These words frequently hint at something being almost or nearly “there” (to whatever the standards are or scenario indicates) or trying to indicate the true nature of a thing.
With Filler Word: It was basically robbery.
No Filler Word: It was robbery.
Almost / Nearly:
I love the word “nearly” in an action scene, as if often helps to convey the stakes surrounding an action. But these words aren’t always necessary to indicate immediacy.
With Filler Word: Crochet needles clicking together, she had nearly completed the blanket.
No Filler Word: Crochet needles clicking together, the blanket had several squares left until it was done.
Appeared / Seemed:
These words can be used to hint at what a character is seeing and interpreting in a scene. But most of the time, it’s best to simply describe what they are seeing.
With Filler Word: Watching Michael pass the envelope to the man across from him, it seemed he was paying the man for his silence.
No Filler Word: Watching as Michael pass the envelope to the man across from him, she gaped. He was paying the man for his silence.
Was / Were:
In general, try to swap out was and were for active verbs.
With Filler Word: Writing early in the morning was tiring, but she pressed on anyway.
No Filler Word: Writing early in the morning weighted her eyes, but she pressed on anyway.
Adverbs / Adjectives:
As was mentioned above, consider carefully if your adjectives or adverbs are necessary or if an active verb can convey the same meaning (without the need for adverbs and adjectives).
With Filler Word: She ran quickly toward the departing school bus.
No Filler Word: She bolted toward the departing school bus.
Other filler words and phrases to tread carefully around:
Quite / Rather
Somewhat / Somehow
Begin / Began / Begun / Start
Although / Though / However
Maybe / Perhaps
Sort of / Kind of / A Little
There / Here
The last thing I’ll mention in this blog that can clutter up your stories are dialogue tags. Rather than indicating who is speaking for every single dialogue tag, consider utilizing character movements or expression—or if dialogue tags are necessary at all.
With Dialogue Tags:
“It’s not my fault,” Sarah said, crossing her arms.
“You’re the one who forgot to bring the dog back inside, and now he’s gone,” Michael said, years streaming down his cheeks.
With Character Movement:
“It’s not my fault.” Sarah crossed her arms.
Tears streamed down Zack’s cheeks. “You’re the one who forgot to bring the dog back inside, and now he’s gone.”
Like anything else, the use of certain words, how you phrase sentences, and (ultimately) how you structure stories to convey a compelling plot is subjective. It’s all about your style as a writer and how you can convey plot and voice. But consider carefully if some of these words can be removed from your writing in order to strengthen it.
Meg LaTorre is a SFF writer, YouTuber, developmental book editor, writing coach, creator of the free query critique platform, Query Hack, and former literary agent with a background in magazine and book publishing, medical/technical writing, journalism, and website creation. On Meg’s YouTube channel, iWriterly, she geeks out on all things books—from the concept to the bookshelves (and everything in between). Meg also launched Query Hack, a query critique platform where writers can submit their manuscript queries or Twitter pitches for FREE feedback. She has written for publications such as Writer’s Digest and Savvy Authors on topics related to writing and publishing, participated as an editor in Twitter contests, including #RevPit (Revise and Resubmit) and Pitch to Publication, and can be found teaching online classes throughout the year. To learn more about Meg, visit her website, follow her on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, sign up for her monthly newsletter (Book Nerd Buzz), and subscribe to her YouTube channel, iWriterly.