Whether you are writing your first novel, a blog post, or a magazine article, strong and concise sentences are paramount for getting your message across.
Like the um’s and uh’s of speaking, filler words add no meaning to a sentence and are there merely to fill space. In addition, they can be a distraction to the reader.
Why are filler words such a problem? Because sometimes – usually more than they even realize - writers write the way they speak. For that reason, as an editor, I know it’s usually during the revision process that wordiness becomes apparent.
And as an editor, one of the filler words I encounter most often is “that”, as in:
“She believed that he was innocent. → She believed he was innocent.” Note here “that” is not essential to the sentence. To be sure, try reading the sentence aloud to yourself, without “that” to make sure the sentence still makes sense. If it does, take “that” out.
But sometimes “that” is essential to making the meaning of the sentence clear, as it does here:
She liked the house that sat on top of the hill. → She liked the house that sat on top of the hill. ["That" is essential to explain which house.]
Here are examples of other common filler words I see in my editing, and the revision I usually suggest:
Absolutely, Certainly, Definitely: delete because these are usually redundant
Ex: Fresh eggs are absolutely essential to this recipe. Better: Fresh eggs are essential to this recipe.
All of the use “all the” Drop of – it’s unnecessary and doesn’t contribute anything to the sentence.
Ex: All of the guests loved the party. Better: All the guests loved the party.
In order to: use “to” – again, “in order” is unnecessary.
Ex: In order to win, you must work hard. Better: To win, you must work hard.
Just, Really, Very, Often: Delete or think of a more powerful word you can use.
Ex: I’m really hungry. Better – I’m starving.
With regard/reference to : use “regarding” or “about”. “With” is unnecessary.
Ex: With reference to what you said earlier, I don’t agree. Better: Regarding what you said earlier, I don’t agree.
Needless to say: Delete – if it’s truly needless to say, then don’t say it.
Ex: Needless to say, he was excited for his vacation. Better: He was excited for his vacation.
Has the ability to: Use “can”. This is what is known as nominalization (wordiness that results when someone uses the noun equivalent of a verb or adjective). Use the verb or adjective form for more powerful sentences. Ex: He has the ability to discuss the proposed changes. Better: He can discuss the proposed changes.
Of course, I know there are usually exceptions to every rule. Just because filter words tend to be weak doesn’t mean they never have a place in our writing. Sometimes they are helpful and even necessary.
Susan Dennard of the writer’s blog Let the Words Flow writes that we should use filter words when they are critical to the meaning of the sentence.
If there’s no better way to phrase something than to use a filter word, then it’s probably okay to do so. Here are some examples Dennard cites:
“Now keep in mind, that sometimes you do want a filter word. Sometimes you do need that distance—you need to know that the character “sees” or “hears” or “wonders”.
I watch the kids play basketball. (The filter word here is important to the meaning of the sentence!)
I hear the radio, but its noise doesn’t process in my mind. (Again, the filter is critical for meaning.)
I lie in my bed, and I wonder why… Why would anyone want to do that to such a nice person? (Not critical, but it adds a nice layer and visual.)
I could feel the cold draft from the window. This window was the broken one.(This is part of the story—we need to know the MC is able to feel in this situation.)”
So how do you break yourself of using the filler words, especially if you realize you’re a serial abuser of certain ones? It’s important to do this to make your writing stronger, and to spend less time – and money – with professional copy editing.
The easiest way is to first make a list of the words you're concerned about. After you finish a first draft, search for each word throughout your document. You can do this easily by using the “Search” feature in Microsoft Word for PC or Mac. Make a conscious decision on what to do about it in each instance (delete the word, leave the sentence alone, rewrite the sentence to make the word unnecessary).
As you realize which filler words you frequently use, you’ll find yourself becoming more sensitive to them as you write. And eliminating them will lead to lower word counts – and more clear and concise writing.