For reference, I last examined filler words over four years ago. After cutting a 110K manuscript down to 104K, I have new thoughts to share.
As before, none of these individual words should be considered forbidden. But there’s a middle ground between “never use it” and “don’t overuse it,” and that’s what a filler-word edit is striving for. Also, my guidelines aren’t intended to be as strict for dialogue; people do say “stuff” and “things” and “like” and “really” in daily life, and stripping filler words from speech can result in a sense of unnaturalness. Always keep that in mind when dealing with your own writing.
Let’s break this down into categories, to help you recognize words in your style which might not be on my list, but still need consideration. (Occasional sarcastic examples ahead.)
Unnecessary Emphasis or Conditionality
just / so / very / sudden(ly) / real(ly) / maybe / almost / nearly / even / quite
Is the problem really bad? (Is the problem serious?) Whenever you see an extra word for emphasis (very tired, so sad) consider if there’s a single word with the same meaning: exhausted, miserable. If you’re hedging about something, if you’re “not quite sure,” trying being uncertain. “Maybe she won’t show up” could be formalized as “she might not”–still a conditional, but it’s cleaner. If that uncertainty is necessary for the meaning of a sentence, keep it in, but consider how you include it.
some / pretty / stuff / thing(s) / all / (a) little / (a) bit / (a) lot(s) / second / moment
This tendency runs to both ends of the spectrum; too vague and too specific are both problems. “Grab your stuff!” is a handy command when you’re in a hurry, but “he grabbed his stuff” is lackluster for a reader. What stuff did he grab? Papers and textbooks, or luggage, or a high-tech gizmo for saving the world?
pretty much want to be specific when you can. If you don’t, things a reader’s experience can be pretty dicey frustrating.
But being too concerned with specificity also creates filler. You want to make sure a character pauses “for a second.” You say the next action happens “in a moment.” When describing something small, it’s “just a little bit.” These phrases are so common, so everyday, without searching for their key words, your brain can pass right over them when you read. A certain level of flow is good for your work (which, again, is why none of these words are forbidden,) but excessive filler gets in the way or even distances the reader from the meaning.
seem / think / feel
Characters will think thoughts, and sometimes, it’s important for an action to seem a certain way, because the intention behind it isn’t clear. But are you leaning on these filtering verbs? How vital is it that something “seems” empty, versus actually being empty? Does it enrich the narrative for Bob to think Jeff is annoyed, or you let Jeff be annoyed without framing it through Bob? Are you stating how your characters feel, instead of showing it organically?
Time and Distance
here / there / (right) now / then / before / after / back / up / down / again
Description and stage direction are necessary, but keep them trim. These words are going to get you, sneaking in as part of everyday phrases: sit down, come back, over there. Sometimes, you keep them: saying something is “over there” might be your intention. But I found myself rewriting pauses in conversation as “before he spoke again,” or “after [performing some action].” Characters were constantly going “back,” coming “back.” “There” is going to snag with “there is” and “there was.” Many instances of these words you will ultimately need; they’re common for good reason. But that shouldn’t be permission not to examine them and cut them whenever possible.
look / walk / turn
Yes, as in “kill your darlings.” This is the most variable category on an individual level, but these three verbs are my over-work-horses. My characters are always looking at each other or giving each other looks. “Walk” might be a holdover from writing three post-apocalyptic road trip novels; I didn’t find it nearly as often in Fifty-Five Days during its filler edit. (Maybe I can take a word off my list instead of adding more, for once!) “Turn” also might be downgraded–I may have trained myself out of characters frequently turning to each other.
You probably have your own darling verbs, and I can’t tell you what they are. Think about your characters’ most common actions and see if you spot patterns.
Multi-meaning, Multi-purpose Words
that / like
I saved these for last, because they can be beasts. “That” is often completely unnecessary: “she thought
that he wouldn’t call her.” Which is why you’ll see advice telling to you cut “that” completely out of your writing–but “that’s” not wise, because “that” is also a useful pronoun. “She pointed to a big red suitcase at the top of the attic stairs. ‘That one,’ she said to Jim, who fetched it for her.” Otherwise you’d have to say “big red suitcase” again. So you can’t axe every “that” with impunity, and even when you do need a pronoun, it can’t always be replaced with “it” or “which.”
Like? Oh, boy. I once heard a piece of advice which I’ll have to paraphrase because it was so long ago: “Every ‘like’ in a piece of writing can be replaced with a word better suited to the purpose.” But when two things are alike, you want to say “like,” not “similar to”–which is longer and more formal. When it’s a verb, sure, you can use “prefer” or “enjoy” instead, depending on context, though again, those choices are longer and more formal. And for similes, by definition, X is like Y, that’s the construction, “like” is in its DNA and if you take it out then you’ve got a metaphor: X is Y.
So, you should like, cut “like” when it’s clearly filler or affectation, but parsing its other meanings and cutting/replacing boils down to cases, because it has so many meanings and is so common.
I want to wrap up with a reminder that this advice is a synthesis of advice I’ve read or received over the years, and my own experience. Some of my filler words won’t be issues for you, and you’ll undoubtedly have ones I don’t; which I why I wanted to revisit my original thoughts, organize my word list by category, and offer enough explanation to show the reasoning behind those words and allow you to recognize others.
“Enough” is a good example. I barely use it, but if your characters often wonder if they’re good enough, strong enough, tough enough…you get the idea.
“Often” and “wonder,” too.