Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
Fix Fluff Words – 14 Fillers for Writers to Avoid

(part 1)

By Kris Maze

Cutting out filler in your novel isn’t easy. Taking the time to tighten up your writing can make readers buy your books and turn an editor’s tired eye. How can writers take a thorough approach to editing out extraneous words?

“Search and Destroy” is what one editor told me while cleaning up my manuscript.  It’s tough to hear, but there are words that writers simply need to kill. In the spirit of clarity, of course. Perhaps this post with a detailed list can help you work through your writing and save you time.

Why is it important to cut these words? 

Fluffy phrases cause our readers to think of naps and soft pillows and putting down our wonderful books.  No writer wants that to happen, so we work with care to unearth the words that cause the reader to pause.  Keep your reader from thinking about nachos or kittens or their shopping list. Whatever is on their mind, dear writer, it is no longer your story. And that is a terrible waste of time and mind-space.

It’s true that fiction writers are destined to break the rules of convention to make a creative point. But many writers overuse these no-go phrases. We can use these extra words sparingly, but only with the finesse that can wow the reader. Using filler words must justify the potential fluff factor with an unexpected twist or clever turn, or they shouldn’t be used at all.

We want our readers to keep turning pages and to do this we need to remove blockages they may encounter.  Too many words, when a simple description will suffice, makes readers skim. Skimming is as bad as setting the book at the bedside. Let’s get our books ready to read by removing the excess, and in the process, have more writer success.

Use this list to help in your editing process. Keep your readers engaged and consider editing out these phrases to enhance your story. It’s daunting, but one can look for these word-culprits and delete, delete, delete.

Lose the Fluff!

Vague Words, Let Us Be Clear

One way to tighten your writing is to use more specific vocabulary and avoid vague phrases that include the word ‘some’.  Someone, something, sometime may be tempting to use, but they often muddle the real details your reader needs to know. There are many variants of the SOME family, get rid of them all. 

Other phrases in this category include: one of, thing, and stuff. Your word-crutch words may include other phrases too.  Notice what these are while editing and add to your own key-words-to-kill list. Being aware of your common filler words will help you avoid them in the future. 

Do a find search in your document to see how many of these vague words are lurking in your story. Add specific details and actions where these words show up.  This can provide clarity for your reader and draw them further into your action.

Words to Search:

  • Some
  • One of
  • Thing
  • stuff

To Be or Not to Be Cut?

Be verbs and gerunds are indicators of loose fluff on your pages and should be considered when editing.  A be verb followed by a gerund (a grammar term for a verb used as a noun that ends in -ing) is a common construction that slows the action for a reader.  Try these sentences in this basic example:

He was looking through the window and was talking to his partner on his cell. One thing was certain, he realized there was criminal activity a foot.


He looked through the window and talked to his partner on his cell. One thing was certain, he realized there was criminal activity a foot.

Words to search:

  • Am
  • Are
  • Is
  • Was
  • Were
  • Being
  • been


Internal thoughts, feelings, and states of mind are another source of fluff to cut. Writers get a tighter story when they use other techniques to express what is on the character’s mind. If it makes sense, a writer could also simply add the thoughts to dialogue. 

One way to fix these internal musings is with italics. Use italics to show what they think, feel, or realize is a mental process within the narration. See the example we used above:

(original) He looked through the window and talked to his partner on his cell. One thing was certain, he realized there was criminal activity a foot.
He looked through the window. Criminal activity is a foot. No doubt about that. And he talked to his partner on his cell.


He looked through the window and talked to his partner on his cell, “there’s criminal activity a foot, Boss.”

Another way to fix internalizations is to show the action that causes this idea or feeling in the POV character.  Show the reader what is happening to pull them deeper into the story. 

If they are reading about what the characters are feeling there is a disconnect between the reader and the story.  If they are immersed in what happens at that moment, they will feel these connections and discover key story elements for themselves.  And that makes reading a pleasurable page turning experience.

See this now modified example from the simplified version above:

He looked through the window and talked to his partner on his cell. Inside the journalist’s messy living room a woman stood. She removed a faded poster from the wall with one hand and threw it to the floor. Behind it was a safe, one far more sophisticated than he would expect from a two-bit small-town newspaperman. She checked a slip of paper with the light from her phone and fumbled with a padlock, twisting out numbers that would uncover the incriminating photographs.

Details can add a vivid picture of what happens in the story.  It draws the reader in and leaves them with questions about what happens next.  Who is the journalist?  Why is someone looking into the window?  Are they a hired detective? What do they want to find?  Are they CIA? Who is the woman? Why does she have the numbers to a secret safe? What motivation does she have?  Writing details like these will compel a reader to continue to the next page and chapter.  It adds much more than the filler words ‘he realized there was criminal activity a foot.’

Words to search:

  • think
  • thought
  • feel
  • felt
  • realize
  • wonder
  • ponder
  • understand
  • understood

Very and Other Distracting Modifiers

Using Very has been discussed in writing groups often.  Eliminating this word has been quoted  by Mark Twain when he famously asked writers to replace the word ‘very’ with ‘damn’ and it will be deleted by their editor.  I also appreciate the argument made by a fictional teacher…

“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys—to woo women—and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.” —N.H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society

Other phrases like rather, quite, and really accomplish very little in a story also. Try a search on these wor

With fine tuning the places where you see the word are places to look for the more apt word.  When choosing a replacement for very phrases there are a few ways it can improve your story. 

  1. Does the new word heighten the genre or theme of your story?
  2. If the word is spoken or a thought, does the word choice exemplify the unique aspects of that story character?
  3. Can the words you choose add a literary element to your writing?  Rhyming or great cadence also draw readers into your work.

Words to search:

  • Very and the following words that are being described
  • Rather
  • Quite
  • Really

Adverbs and Other Sins

Personally, I am a fan of using adverbs like a little dash of salt in my stories, but it is well-known in writing circles that one must avoid using adverbs.  Adverbs, or the words that describe how an action occurs, are often an easier way to show the reader what exactly is happening in your story.

Teddy walked slowly away from the park.


Teddy walked, dragging his sneakered toe one after the other, away from the excitement of the swings. “Why do I have to take a nap?” Teddy stopped and knotted his arms into a tangled mess.  His last hope to wear his mother’s will into letting him play.

Look for how you described actions throughout your manuscript.  Do you have places to strengthen your writing with clear crisp descriptions?  Try adding setting elements, characterizations, and specific actions to better describe what is happening.

Words to search:

  • Words describing how an action occurs
  • Look for words that end in -ly

Never Use Always

Absolutes are on the list because they don’t say what is happening in the story. Never means someone has zero possibility of occurring. Is that true? 

If there is a case where it could be true, is it worth writing it in or eliminating the word for clarity? Dogs don’t always chase cats. Teenagers are not always moody. It doesn’t always rain in the Pacific Northwest.  It’s also not true that allegedly George Washington never told a lie. 

Never and always usually add distraction to your story.  Unless it is a specific, definitive point, consider eliminating these extra words. Try using juxtaposing ideas instead, like in this simplified example:

My dog never leaves the house.


My dog loved to chase cats coming into the yard. Until the burly neighborhood stray tried to make friends.  Now he won’t leave the house.

Try an example using always.

The girls always love to talk on the phone.


The girls used up all the family plan phone minutes, adding surcharges to our bill three months in a row.

Words to search:

  • Always
  • Never
  • Other words showing absolutes

Tips for Reviewing your Manuscript for Phrases to remove

  1. Read your work aloud or use the read feature found in many writing software programs.
  2. Critique another writer’s work and use a similar list to cut. Using fresh eyes of another writer (and doing the same for them) can help reveal phrases you may overuse.
  3. Try the Find command in Word or other writing program.

However you accomplish your editing tasks, try cleaning up your writing by pulling these phrases from your work. Watch for my next post when we go over more words to cut from the comprehensive list.

Do you have tips for editing filler words from your writing?  Do you have a phrase or word that you overuse?  Share in the comments below. 

About Kris

Kris Maze is an author, writing coach, and teacher. She has worked in education for many years and writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and the award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host. You can find her horror stories and keep up with her author events at her website.

A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors.

And occasionally, she knits.

Read More
How to Let Readers into Your Characters’ Inner Life

by Tiffany Yates Martin

Inner mind from Colors of the Mind series. Colorful abstract shapes symbolize mind, reason, thought, emotion and spirituality.

Regardless of what POV you’re writing in, allowing readers to understand what’s going on inside your character is what makes a story immediate, direct, and vivid to us. If we don’t know how they react to things and how they process them, your characters might as well be game pieces we simply watch progress along the board. Readers want to feel we’re part of the game.

To do that we must understand the character’s perspective: how events strike her and what she makes of them. That’s the heart of the character’s journey—how you show them moving along their arc. It’s stimulus-reaction-response: The thing happens, it affects the character in a certain way, and as a result in impacts their thinking or perspective or plans.

But how do you let readers be privy to the inner workings of your characters’ lives without bogging your story down in interiority?

Bring Your Readers Inside Characters’ Direct Experience

Here’s a simplistic, general example of issues I see frequently in creating immediacy and intimacy in stories.

“Are we going to be okay?”

“I don’t know.”

We sat in silence for a while. Despair set in, and my tears began to fall.

There’s nothing overtly wrong with this passage. We have a clear conflict—there’s some kind of relationship crisis—and we know that the POV character is unhappy about it.

But readers may not be affected by this moment, because it has a distant feel. We’re on the outside looking in because we’re not directly experiencing the character’s reactions—rather, they’re being narrated to us, as if the character were dispassionately standing just to the side of herself and reporting on what’s going on.

It’s “safe” writing, the way that we often protect our own emotions by distancing ourselves from them—“No, I’m fine, just a little sad”—rather than risk letting people really see our pain.

In story, we want to not only see characters’ pain—and joy and fear and excitement and anger and everything else—we want to feel it with them. We read not to hear someone’s story related to us secondhand, but to live it right along with them.

For that, you have to bring us more deeply into their direct experience.

That doesn’t mean every story must be deep POV; you can open the curtain to a character’s inner life in every point of view. And it doesn’t mean swaths of navel-gazing self-reflection or inner dialogue. It simply means giving readers not just a front-row seat to the character’s journey, but a backstage pass.

The above passage makes three common missteps that can keep readers at a remove from a character’s direct perspective:

1. Misusing silence

As I’m fond of saying, silence is never empty; our minds are always processing, even when our mouths aren’t moving. And yet frequently I see authors employ silence as a mere piece of stage description, as in this example, rather than utilizing all its juicy potential.

Something is going on inside your characters during their silences, even if it’s only reaction to the silence, like discomfort or anxiety. More often it’s when we’re processing whatever was happening right before the silence fell: the argument, the momentous piece of news, the screech of brakes, the thought-provoking comment—even just a piece of new insight or information.

In the silence our minds are churning: “Why did he say that?” “What does that mean?” “What happened?” “Now what?” or even just “What the hell do I say to that?” Our emotions are likely engaging too—we have a reaction to whatever just happened or was said, and we’re experiencing it: we’re hurt or angry or confused or offended or gobsmacked. Or maybe we’re just thinking.

Silences are processing moments—and readers want to be privy to the processing.

2. Labeling emotion

In the above example, “despair set in” is a shortcut to emotion, rather than allowing readers to feel what the character is feeling directly. As with the “I’m fine, just sad” comment I mentioned above, it’s distancing “tell” instead of the “show” of what’s going on inside the character that their higher-reasoning brain then assesses as sadness.

If you want readers to deeply invest in your characters and their story, then you have to not just tell them what the character is feeling, but rather let us feel it with him directly. It means giving us that all-access pass to the same experience the character is having, instead of just reporting on it.

I call this “lizard-brain writing”: conveying the instinctive, reactive amygdala reaction of a character rather than the intellectual conclusion about it that the higher-reasoning cerebrum draws.

Instead of the dispassionate labeling of the character’s emotion as “despair,” can you find a way to describe what the character is actually viscerally experiencing that their intellectual mind concludes means “despair”?

This usually involves what I often call “method writing,” the writer’s equivalent of Stanislavski’s Method acting where you recall a situation in your own life when you’ve experienced something similar to what the character is experiencing. Maybe you’ve never felt the black despair of a broken marriage, for instance, but because you’re human you’ve felt something at least despair-adjacent in your life: perhaps when you lost a job, or your dog died, or you heard a daunting diagnosis of someone you loved.

Can you remember what that felt like inside you, or imagine it, or extrapolate from it? Every human is marvelously unique, so your version of what despair feels like will be different from anyone else’s, but put that direct experience on the page rather than the intellectual description and you will let readers feel it right along with your character.

3. Letting physical or physiological description substitute for insight

Every writer probably knows the struggle of trying to find yet another tangible way to describe intangible reactions and emotions: “her throat closed,” “his stomach tightened,” “she frowned,” and my least favorite, “bile rose in his throat.”

Besides being overfamiliar to the point of cliché, these shortcuts bypass actual direct emotion for a dry commentary on its manifestation, a DSM of presenting symptoms.

These visceral reactions are useful—they actually can be a tool for letting readers understand the effect of an emotion rather than labeling it. But used without some insight into why the character is reacting that way, they can leave readers in the dark about what’s going on inside them.

In the above example, yes, we know the character is crying, but that’s simply a physiological fact. It doesn’t get at the actual cause. The author told us that these are tears of despair, but despair of what, exactly? Does the character think this heralds the end of the line for this relationship? Is she frustrated at the impasse they seem to be at? Does she no longer see the point of trying to fix things?

We don’t know—all we have is a reporter’s recounting of general events. We want to be in the scene—to feel firsthand what it’s like to be at the nexus of the action. We need some glimpse into what the character is making of what happened, how they’re processing it, what they think that is creating what they feel. We want to know what impact this occurrence has, how it shifts their reality, moves them along their arc to the next action they will take.

And all of that lives inside of the character, opaque to us unless the author invites us in.

How to Open the Window to Your Characters’ Inner Life

None of that means we need paragraphs of exposition or purple prose—don’t overcorrect. Just stop and process along with your characters—what they might be thinking and feeling, how they might be reacting, and what that experience might be like.

In the case of our original example perhaps that looks like this:

“Are we going to be okay?”

“I don’t know.”

Silence fell like a child’s ball down a well, vanishing into darkness. Hot hopelessness swam up my throat and behind my eyes, but tears wouldn’t save my marriage any more than a child could retrieve a favorite toy lost forever.

This version isn’t so much better writing as that it opens a wider window to the character’s inner life: We sense something of the character’s reaction in the nature of the silence—dark, empty, lost. We viscerally understand what she is actually experiencing as she cries, not just the fact of her tears. And her metaphor of the ball in the well gives the reader specific insight into why she’s crying: her marriage feels hopeless, irretrievable.

It doesn’t matter what POV you’re writing in—even omniscient (go back and recast each step of this example in other POVs and you’ll see what I mean). If you want your readers to feel directly engaged in your stories, put yourself inside the characters’ head, behind their eyes, and imagine—the writer’s greatest tool.

What books have you read where the author does a great job of bringing you inside the character's head? What questions do you have for Tiffany? Please share with us down in the comments!

About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York TimesWashington PostWall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers. She is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing and leads seminars and workshops for writers around the country. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's also the author of six novels, including the recently released The Way We Weren't(Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.

Top photo from Depositphotos.

Read More
How Much Does Genre Matter?

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

Genre is often a hot topic of discussion in the writing world, and new writers particularly wonder how much does genre matter?

For some writers, genre is an integral part of their craft.

  • “All I’ve ever done are thrillers, but someday I might like to branch out.”
  • “They couldn’t pay me enough to write anything but Regency romance.”
  • “Lately she’s been thinking about switching from MG to YA mysteries.”
  • “Police procedural fans will snap up whatever he writes next.”

For other writers, not so much.

  • “I couldn’t pin down a genre; my book doesn’t fit any specific niche.”
  • “Well, maybe you could call this a cozy LGBTQ historical fantasy..."
  • “Why should a book have to fit within one very limited set of rules?”
  • “My story is mainstream, literary -- it’s meant for readers who think.”

So that leads to the question of how much (if at all) genre actually matters.

What IS genre?

It’s a quick way of defining what kind of reading experience someone can expect from a particular book. Fans of certain genres have definite expectations of what they do and don’t want to see in the kind of story they love.

“That’s so LIMITING!” someone might protest. “That’s like saying you can build whatever style of house you want as long as it’s exactly 1357 square feet and has three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen and living room. Where’s the creative freedom?”

“That’s so FREEING!” someone else might exult. “As long as I plant enough clues that readers could solve the mystery, and show the good guys hauling the bad guys off to face justice in the final chapter, I can do anything I want with this story.”

Both points are valid. And a lot of writers’ feelings about genre are based on their reason for writing in the first place.

Why ARE we writing?

There’s sure no One Right Answer to that question – although, since genre is only an issue for writers who intend to publish, let’s change the question to “Why are we writing for publication?”

Some possibilities might be:

  • Validation (to prove I can write books people want to read)
  • Money (to at least cover my expenses, or even earn a living)
  • Accomplishment (to take pride in achieving a difficult goal)
  • Expression (to share my thoughts and ideas with the world)
  • Recognition (to gain credibility, honors, sense of fulfillment)
  • Recreation (to have fun making up stories people will enjoy)

For some of those desires, writing within a specific genre will make life easier. For others, harder. Which makes it important to consider the question...

How can genre help you?

Genre fiction is, by and large, easier to sell. Romance has been the top-selling genre for decades, with readers loyally buying every single book their favorite authors release. Mystery is the next highest, and science fiction/fantasy does extremely well, too. While any of those categories could easily contain truly innovative themes, they’re still considered genre fiction because, by and large, readers appreciate knowing:

They can count on the kind of story they want.

  • When someone picks up a book labeled “romance,” they’re going to see by the end that love conquers all.
  • When someone picks up a book labeled “mystery,” they’re going to see by the end that justice triumphs.
  • When someone picks up a book labeled “fantasy” or “science fiction,” they’re going to see a fascinating other world.

And so on.

That holds true for literary fiction, as well. When readers pick up a book reviewed by The New York Times, they can feel pretty certain that their thinking will be challenged or deepened. If the book simply offers the same kind of traditional satisfaction they expect from a romance or mystery or SFF, they’re going to feel cheated.

And it’s the other way around for genre readers. If the romantic couple doesn’t live happily ever after, or if the murderer kills not only the hostages but the entire police force, THEY’RE going to feel cheated.

Does your book fit a genre?

It might. If you want quicker, easier sales and likely higher profits, it probably should. But if that’s not part of your aim in writing, there’s no reason you need to fit into any genre -- you can tell any kind of story you feel like telling, and feel satisfied with having expressed yourself in a book that readers who love it will remember fondly for a long time. (And, heck, you never know: you could also wind up on the NYT bestseller list!)

But let’s say that for now, you’re more interested in delivering a story that readers will feel confident about buying because they know what kind of experience they can expect.

How do you satisfy the demands of genre fiction, while also making it work for you?

Genre highlights can be a powerful tool. So can plot and character, which are the other two elements of your Story Braid. In fact, someone who answers the question below will win free registration to a class on that very topic.

Your Plot Character Genre Braid will be taught via email from September 5-30, going over how to integrate all three elements (plot, character, and genre) for a story that stays strong from beginning to end.

Which leads to our prize-drawing question...

What genre(s) do you most like to write and/or read?

Are they the same? Are they different? Of course they’ve changed since you first started reading children’s books way-back-when, but what’s your latest favorite for reading and/or writing?

Mention either or both -- it’s fine to use conventional labels like “cozy mystery” or “erotic fantasy” and it’s also fine to mention something more specialized. Just think about what you love to (at least sometimes) write and/or read!

Other Offer: if you’d like a Zoom class on “Keeping the Writing Fire Lit,” that’s free for anyone who makes ANY size donation of time or money to ANY charity (not their usual) they feel like God has in mind. It’ll be held next Saturday, August 27, from 12-1pm Eastern Time and you can register here.

About Laurie

Laurie Schnebly Campbell (BookLaurie.com) always loves creating a class, so when a writer asked about “braiding” she was delighted at the chance to explore an untouched subject. Although she enjoyed braiding her own books, including one that beat out Nora Roberts for “Best Special Edition of the Year,” she enjoys teaching even more. That’s why she now has 52 first-sale novels on her bookshelf from authors inspired by her classes.

Top Photo by Daniel on Unsplash

Read More
1 2 3 621

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved