How to Ditch Filler Words and Make Your Manuscript Shine
While I'd heard other writers suggest going through their manuscript for filler words that make the writing weak, I had never done it. That was advice for adverb junkies or writers who declaim, shout, grunt, groan, and so on. I didn't have that many filler words, did I?
Spoiler alert: I did.
It was shocking to learn how many times I'd used the same phrasing or inserted a filter between my first-person narrator and the reader, even after doing multiple drafts (where I might have caught weak writing).
Having done this, it's a step I'll never skip again.
Filler Words to Remove From Your Writing
Start by searching for these words:
Really/very - If you're relying on a really or very, you can probably find a stronger word to use. Ex: really tough vs. grueling.
Up/down - These are frequently not necessary; removing them tightens the sentence.
Totally, entirely, completely, absolutely, fully, wholly, entirely, etc. - These words don't usually add anything to your sentence and they are a red flag to some agents and writers.
Quite/somewhat/sort of - These words don't usually add anything to your sentence and they are a red flag to some agents and writers.
Probably, definitely, maybe, certainly, basically, actually, usually - Most of the time, these words don't pull weight in the sentence. Keep it in when it highlights an exception: "She usually locked the door when she went jogging, but she forgot on that fateful Wednesday." OK bad foreshadowing, but you get the idea.
Start/begin - Not necessary, unless you're highlighting what happened after the start.
Just - I tend to leave this in dialogue since it's true to life, while nixing it from prose since it tends to read redundant.
Then - Then can sound repetitive; leave it when it's necessary to show sequence, but nix it when you don't need it.
Wonder, think, feel, ponder, understand, realize, etc. - These are filters; they distance your reader from your character. Cut them to reduce distance. - "I wondered whether she was cheating" can be "Was she cheating?"
Seem/look - These also create distance. I use them when the narrator is guessing at what another character is thinking, so the reader understands you're not switching the point of view.
Breathe, inhale, exhale - These are major red flags for agents and editors since they are so overused by writers (guilty as charged I cut so many of these).
Shrug, nod, smile, etc. - Any repetitive gesture that doesn't show that much should be cut in favor of something more unique and memorable. This is a missed opportunity to show character!
See, hear, watch, notice - More filtering words that distance the reader from the narrator. You don't need to say, "Jane saw her mother duck into a car with an unfamiliar man" when you can say "Jane's mother ducked into a car with an unfamiliar man" - the reader knows Jane's observing this.
Think, decide, wonder, know - More filtering words. "I wonder if we'll pull off the bank heist" is weaker than "Will we pull off the bank heist?"
Every, everyone, everything - I had a ton of these. It's kind of appropriate for YA, since teens are prone to black and white, all or nothing thinking, but overuse can sound vague or melodramatic. Take "Everything sucks." Does EVERYTHING suck? What is everything?
This checklist is a starting point.
You know best which verbal tics you have, so search for and eliminate those too.
For me, I knew I'd inserted a lot of mouth/lip gestures, from chewing lips to gasping breaths to the super-boring smile. I searched for those and tried to increase the specificity when I could.
Sometimes it's a simple matter of substituting grin or beam for smile; other times, you might want to focus on another sense or another part of the body.
Instead of chewing a lip to show indecisiveness, you could have the character fidget, glance at their shoes, or say something (dialogue's a great way to get around those repetitive gestures).
Why It's Worth the Pain to Cut Filler Words
This revision work is about polish and professionalism. By the time you're here, your work is nearly ready to go. It's super tempting to submit, but I PROMISE, it's worth the pain to cut these words.
A lot of these filler words are either telling words (notably, those that add narrative distance) or they don't add anything to the manuscript. By cutting them, you'll tighten up your prose—which is exactly what agents and editors are looking for. Your work will also look more professional (so, great if you're writing essays) and grip readers.
My technique for gutting these words is to do a search for one word, then evaluate each use of that word, one by one. If I've got 10-15 instances of a word like "actually" in a 200-page book, I'm not that worried about it. I'll still go through them to sort of recommit not each one, but if they all make the cut, it's fine by me.
If I've got like 200 instances of "know," I'll be stricter in cutting.
My rule is to worry less about dialogue, so if someone says, "I know she lied," in a conversation, I'll just as soon leave it as change it to "She lied." because the emphasis on knowing is important. The reader's learning she lied, but also that the speaker knew it. They wonder, why is the speaker telling us now? Was the speaker involved in covering up her lie, but decided to betray her confidence?
For a sentence like "I know our only shot is to outrun the kidnappers" it's stronger to say "Our only shot is to outrun the kidnappers." The reader is in your character's head, so anything your character sees, hears, knows, etc. should be as direct as possible. Leaving in the "I know" makes the moment feel told rather than shown.
Once I finish one word, I move to the next. I'd recommend copying this list and crossing off or removing a word once you've searched for us. I did this revision pass over a week and sometimes forgot what I'd edited.
If you know you have a problem with telling vs. showing, a pass to remove these words can do wonders! I'd recommend saving this for one of your last drafts; otherwise, you could spend a lot of time removing words that get cut in revisions as well as winding up with extra fillers in the final because you edited too early.