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Filler Words: The Carbs of Literature

You’re knee-deep in self-editing and finding that despite all the corrections you’ve made, your words still aren’t flowing the way you want them to. I’ve been there many times and know the frustration you feel at this moment is palpable. However, the solution may be simpler than you imagined. Have you checked for filler words? They may be the culprit responsible for your inconsistent flow.

Filler words take up space and hinder your flow.

As a storyteller, it’s tempting to use as many words as possible to define your meaning clearly, but it’s completely counterproductive. In the literary world, less is more, and clarity is king. A general rule I like to give authors is to say things concisely. Use only the words necessary to convey the meaning. In doing so, you’ll see a few words pop up frequently for removal. More than likely, these will be the dreaded filler words.

So, what are filler words?

Filler words are words that add no meaning to your sentence. They take up space. While writing, we may believe these words are the glue that holds our lines together, but in reality, these words weigh them down. That doesn’t mean we should avoid using these words altogether. We limit their use to when they add value. In dialogue, for example, it’s okay to use filler words, but in prose, you should avoid them when you can.

I like to compare filler words to carbs. Often, we convince ourselves that we need more of them than we actually do. And trimming down the amount of carbs we consume will positively impact our lives. A few carbs here and there is more than enough for a healthy diet but eating too many weighs you down and creates all kinds of health and wellness issues. Filler words operate the same way. You do need them sometimes, but not nearly as often as you may think. Overuse negatively impacts your manuscript on a large scale. Trimming their use is the best policy to ensure your lines read the way you want them to.

Some common filler words I see with my clients are:

  • just

  • that

  • anyway

  • had

  • really

  • very

  • so

Here’s how it may look:

I had just left his house and I felt very bad that the man I thought he was, wasn’t really who he was at all, and he was just very good at pretending.

That line has a whopping thirty-three words in it, and an author revising it may erroneously think it’s a run-on. In reality, it’s wordy and needs the filler words removed. Again, as you read this, you may think those words are necessary to hold the line together, but they aren’t. Here’s a suggested revision:

As I left his house, I felt bad, realizing he wasn’t the person I thought he was.

I removed the filler words in this line, and I omitted the last part of the sentence. It’s not necessary to spell everything out for the reader. For example, in this line, you can assume that a reasonable person would understand he must have been pretending. So, we don’t need to state that. Have you ever heard the expression, “What’s understood doesn’t need to be explained?” That’s the gist of this concept. But that’s a topic for another day.

Removing the filler words didn’t cause the line to fall apart. What it did was allow us to communicate our thoughts clearly and concisely. Here’s another example:

It was at that very moment that I realized that she had my heart, so I knew that if I just let her walk away my life would actually be nothing without her in it.

Again, here’s what that line would look like tightened up.

At that moment, I realized she had my heart, and I knew if I let her walk away, my life would be nothing without her.

In this example, I kept one of the words designated as a filler because it was necessary.

Removing filler words will help you achieve your ideal word count and improve your flow and readability. To find where fillers can be removed without impacting the meaning of your sentences, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this a word that I use often?

  • Does this word help readers understand what I’m trying to say?

  • Can I say this more simply with fewer words?

If you feel like you need one on one help identifying weaknesses like this in your manuscripts, contact me for a manuscript evaluation. I'd love to help!

In the meantime, give this method a try to search and destroy those filler words that are weighing your manuscript down. If you do, let me know how it works for you in the comments. I look forward to hearing from you!

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