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:
- One of
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:
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:
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…
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.
- Does the new word heighten the genre or theme of your story?
- If the word is spoken or a thought, does the word choice exemplify the unique aspects of that story character?
- 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
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:
- Other words showing absolutes
Tips for Reviewing your Manuscript for Phrases to remove
- Read your work aloud or use the read feature found in many writing software programs.
- 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.
- 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.
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.