Revision stage part seven: filler words
We made it to the last part of the revision series! This is the simplest but likely most boring in the series. Some of you might wonder why it’s necessary at all because this is something an editor will do. Well, this is true, but an editor does all those other things in parts one through six, too. For those reading, hopefully you’ve decided by now that the main goal in your revision stage is to make your story the best you can make it so whoever your editor is can find the more important problems hiding beneath simple mistakes. I’ll expand more on this at the end of this post.
Filler words are basically (<- filler word) unnecessary words. I’m going to expand on it in this post and talk about adverbs and adjectives, too. I consider those to be filler words because, in many cases, they replace what a writer would write if they took time to do so. Let me clarify something, though: Adverbs and adjectives are allowed in moderation. Don’t think I’m about to tell you to ctrl+F for all “ly” words and press delete. They have their uses. This is not the post mandating a mass murder of all filler words in your manuscript.
I won’t discuss passive voice in this post, though active voice condenses and strengthens your writing. I won’t write about it because I’ve already written about it here.
Oh, by the way, my posts have a lot of filler words. It’s a blog post. I can do that. Can you find them all?
We’ll look at the obvious words. The list is long, but some of the most common filler words can, about ninety percent of the time, be deleted completely. (Don’t quote me on that statistic.)
Why do they need to go? What are they hurting?
Have you ever listened to someone ramble? Have you heard a sentence that never seems to end or sounds confusing because there are so many words that lead up to the main idea in the sentence? Filler words are one of many culprits. Sentences read easier without them, the meaning is clearer, and your story is more condensed. Remember, write for yourself, but edit for your reader.
Can I just replace them?
Read the last sentence in the above sub-subhead. Condensing a story. That’s the goal. Condensing your story means your reader will have a harder time putting the book down. Make every word count. Do that, and grab your reader with your words, and you’ll have them forever. Well, until the book ends, anyway. Yes, you can replace some of them, but we’ll discuss that.
What are the most common filler words?
Let’s get to the point. Remove the word, read the sentence, and only delete the word if the sentence makes sense without the word. I could give you a novelette-long list of what people consider filler words, but these are the big’n’s:
Most of the time, you can just remove this.
He’s one of them. That requires “of.” One of the times . . . You can say “one time.” I couldn’t figure out which one of them he was. “I couldn’t figure out which one he was.” Same concept. Remove, read, delete or put it back.
When you take this out, it makes something less “umphful.” Yeah, I made that up. It gives it less power. If you see a “very,” you might be giving yourself a crutch. You’re a writer. Use words. It’s not very strong; it’s powerful. It’s not very mad; it’s furious. It’s not very wet; it’s soaked or drenched. You don’t need fancy words that your reader needs a dictionary to know, but you can use better ones.
This is probably the most common. Same rule as I mentioned before the list. Remove, read, delete if it still makes sense.
Same as “very,” but “so” is used as a contraction more often than an intensifier.
- And then/and so/ but then
Progression doesn’t require two words to show it. “And” is inclusive, “so” implies an event as a result of something, and “but” implies contradiction. That’s usually the role of those words. A dog can walk then poop. He can walk to the park so he can poop. He can also walk and poop, but I’d hope your dog doesn’t do that. He’ll mess himself. He doesn’t need to walk to the park and then poop.
Although I don’t find it tragic and necessary, you can usually replace “then” with “and.” Not a big deal, but some say “then” is a weaker word. I’m the editor who says go for it, but if I become aware of its popularity throughout the manuscript, I’ll address it.
- Completely, absolutely, totally, suddenly, basically, technically, etc.
You can disregard this for dialogue, kind of. Don’t fill your dialogue with fillers, but they’re far from off the table. Eloquence is less convincing than colloquialism unless you have a reason for it. Formal has its place, but informal dialogue is realistic.
Suddenly, immediately, and words referring to time are the biggest ones I see. Nothing immediately happens if the word “immediately” slows the reader to an action. “He immediately jumped out of his seat and bolted out the door” is a slower action than “he jumped out of his seat and bolted out the door.” Why? The reader has to read another word before an action takes place. It can be argued that one could use “slowly,” and I might agree with either side. Write it if you must. There are always exceptions.
As for the others, they have a tendency of being redundant or unnecessary. Being completely in love with someone is the equivalent of being in love with someone, isn’t it? The issue is that “completely” is an intensifier here, and taking it away isn’t as powerful, right? Well, if you remove it, guess what you’re obligated to do: show. Another sentence will give this love moment more power than “completely” ever will, so while removing it takes away the effect in the sentence, it allows you to give it more meaning.
- Up, down
You sit down and stand up, right? Well, what if you sit and stand? See the difference? Just a word, yet they both mean the same thing. Up and down can be redundant, sometimes. What’s the harm in removing it so you’re not defining what you just said?
- Dialogue tags
Exclaimed, interjected, rambled, queried, and all those fancy words draw a reader out of the story and into their mental dictionaries. Said, asked, mumbled, whispered, and smaller words like that are easily understood, and said is a dialogue tag that should be used most often. Why? Because a reader almost doesn’t notice its existence.
Another tip is to remove dialogue tags when it’s known who is talking, and insert action tags in place of dialogue tags every now and again. This allows you to show emotion and interaction between characters. Here’s a blog post I wrote on that.
This list could go on, but this is a great starting point. Remember, these words help condense your story, improve readability, and strengthen your writing. It’s a great exercise, too!
Let’s get on with this, though, and get into those other things I talked about.
Adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs.
Verbs: He really wanted that lollipop, didn’t he?
Adjectives: You’re always pretty, you know?
Other adverbs: She’s definitely always working.
They’re not always necessary, and it’s up to you to do one of three things when you come across them:
In the above examples, I can remove “definitely” and the sentence won’t change in meaning or effect. If I typed “His mother walked silently to her car,” I could reword the sentence to have a stronger image. “His mother tiptoed to her car.”
That condensed the sentence and provided the image. That’s what it means to be careful with adverbs. Sometimes, they weaken a sentence. It’s up to you to figure out where they can be removed, reworded, or where they might be okay as they are.
Adjectives modify a noun. They describe it. You can have a gorgeous woman, an ugly desk, or a weird word. Adjectives aren’t limited to animated objects or matter. Any noun can have an adjective attached to it.
Sometimes, you can remove an adjective you chose and show rather than use an adjective to tell for you. Saying something is ugly doesn’t tell me what makes it ugly. If you tell me what makes it ugly after you say it’s ugly, why did you need to tell me it’s ugly in the first place? I’m a big girl; I can decide for myself whether a rusted, gray desk is ugly.
Ah! Did you catch that? See those adjectives I used? Rusted? Gray? That’s the trick there. Some adjectives are necessary, right?
But, let’s move on to another example.
The harsh wind slammed into my back and I fell off the bench I stood on. Harsh is your adjective, but it’s not a necessary one. Harsh, to me, might not mean the same thing it means to you. When you can answer no to “Does it mean the same thing to most people?” you probably need to change it. Well, you can.
Wind slammed into my back, pushing me off the bench I stood on. Simply said, but it’s an image. I added the standing part since I didn’t give you context. Removing the adjective forced me to develop a stronger image, and in cases like that, it is usually best to do so. If the image is secondary to the story and doesn’t require attention, an adjective might be fine. Or, you can remove that small scene if it’s insignificant. Your choice. Your judgment.
This barely scratches the surface, but all these posts, while tedious, will help you improve as a writer. It will also help you improve your story. Don’t disregard the power of the revision stage. It’s necessary, and your story will be better for it.
Let me stress that going through these seven steps will not replace an editor. An editor knows what to look for, and they have trained eyes. You, the writer, especially don’t have trained eyes with your work because you’re the writer. That’s not an insult to you. If I write something, I’m not going to depend on myself to find everything. Fresh eyes and a trained eye find things the writer doesn’t because the writer’s knowledge of the story fills in the blanks. The writer also already loves the story, so filler words, plot holes, and all that stuff don’t bother them. If you’re in love, what deterrent could possibly drive you away from the object of your ultimate affection?
Well, the reader doesn’t feel the same way, and that’s why you must revise your story.
The next question is why you need to go through these steps if you’re hiring an editor anyway. That answer takes its own post, and I conveniently wrote one for you here.
So, take your journey. Revise your story. Make it shine. Then let your readers see its awesomeness, and get started on your next book!