One of the biggest struggles with being a writer is length. If a story is too short, you risk readers being confused. If it’s too long, you might have a harder time getting it published and bought. Today I’m focusing on the long end of that scale, and one of the reasons why you might have a few too many words: filler words.
Filler words are those words in a sentence that don’t actually add anything to the meaning. In the worst case scenario, they’re taking up space and lowering your writing strength. Sometimes spotting them can be tricky, but there are a few that are constant fillers.
That is one of those words that you toss into a sentence without thinking too much about it, which is where it causes trouble. A lot of times, that can be completely removed with no complaints. Observe:
- I hope that the awards ceremony goes smoothly.
- I hope the awards ceremony goes smoothly.
That does have a purpose, but it’s also a multi-use word. It can be used as a pronoun, adverb and a conjunction. It also has it’s uses for determining specifics (his wife is that woman over there) which is why there are times you need ‘that’ in a sentence.
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re using that as a conjunction (she said that she was happy) or to mean ‘very’ (it wasn’t that far away) the chance is good you can cut it out. As with any general rule however, keep in mind that there are always exceptions, so use your sense and when in doubt, read both versions of your sentence aloud.
Just is another word that gets tossed in without much thought, and like the above, it can often be completely removed. The trouble with removing just often comes down to context, largely because it can mean multiple things.
- Adjective; meaning something that is fair and morally right.
- Adverb; meaning exactly (it’s just what we need), recently (I just came through the door) or barely (she just made the winning goal), only (he was just interested in looks), and possibly (it might just work).
Context is key to dealing with just. As with any adverb, there are times when it’s necessary. In the case of meaning ‘recently’ it can help clarify meaning with one word instead of three.
- I just came through the door.
- I came through the door a moment ago.
Almost, unlike our above two examples, isn’t just thrown into writing. It’s not so much filler as it is a weakener. Why? Because a lot of times it’s used as a descriptor even though it means ‘for the most part.’ That means every time you see it in a sentence, the thing described isn’t quite what it’s being said. To clarify:
- The sun was almost bright.
- Her clothes were almost clean.
- The evening was almost dark out.
In all three of the above sentences the inclusion of ‘almost’ weakens the writing by implying that something is not what it’s being said. Is the sun bright? Yes, unless overcast. Are her clothes clean? Yes, most likely. Is the evening dark, or is it darkening? If it’s dark, get rid of the ‘almost’. If it’s in the process of turning dark, use another word. In some cases, the removal might require some rewriting, but it generally strengthens the sentence overall.
When you come across ‘almost’ ask yourself if the description is accurate. If your answer is ‘yes’ then drop the almost. If your answer is no, check that you’ve written with the strongest possible words.
Most -ly words are actually adverbs. Quickly. Softly. Highly. Persistently. These are all adverbs, and like any other adverb, they have a time and place, but when you come across them in as fillers, they can be one of two things.
- Out of place. Adverbs are used to modify other words. That is their job. But, some of them have no place being used with particular verbs. If you whisper, you’re already speaking quietly, or softly. Adding either of those onto your whisper is unnecessary–the word itself means to speak softly. Both quietly and softly would out of place when used with whisper or even murmur because they aren’t modifying the verb, they’re just restating the built-in description.
- They weaken writing. Just like ‘almost’ can weaken your sentence, -ly words aren’t the strongest option, and their inclusion can bloat your word count while they pretend to be useful. An example: necessarily. It means something is vital or inevitable. Yet it often gets tacked onto not, which again, means something isn’t quite what it’s stated or what it appears. For example: This isn’t necessarily a bad outcome. By dropping ‘necessarily’ you retain the base meaning of the sentence: the outcome isn’t bad.
In general, most -ly words can indicate you need to choose a different word. Ran quickly is redundant, but sprinted, dashed or darted are strong words. This isn’t always the case however. Persistently hissing indicates that something is hissing, and doing so on a regular basis.
There are several other filler words. You may also find that you overuse certain words that aren’t fillers. I’m terrible for just, smile and back. The latter two aren’t fillers normally, they’re just not the strongest options in every case, which means I end up falling back on weaker words, like a lot of -ly words to clarify or describe.
What are some of your filler words?