Filler Words and Filter Words

Filler Words, Sentence Adverbs, and Filter Words

Part 1 of 3: Filler words

A couple of writer friends were recently discussing a list of what they called “filler words” in the context of cleaning up drafts of their manuscripts. For a fraction of a second I thought one had written “filter words.” They’re different things, but both are important in writing and they overlap and interact. I haven’t written on this topic for quite a while, so decided to dive into it. Once I got going, the post ran long and covered a lot of ground. Since each section that developed—filler words, sentence adverbs, filter words—stands well enough on its own, I’ve decided to split this into three posts. They’ll all be accessible within the next few days. We’ll start with…

Filler Words

My friends were working from a list for searching (which I’ve made some changes to):

  • and then
  • even
  • fairly
  • just
  • much
  • only
  • pretty
  • quite
  • rather
  • really
  • simply
  • so
  • that
  • there
  • totally
  • very

At the beginning of sentences (search to match case):

  • And
  • But
  • However
  • So
  • Yet

That list is definitely not exhaustive (there’s another word to watch out for: definitely), but it’s a good start. These, and other words, often function exactly (there’s another: exactly) as described: they serve as filler, taking up unneeded space on the page. The majority of the time—85%? I’ve never measured—they can be cut with little or no consequence or rewriting.

If you know you use too many filler words, but are afraid to go after them yourself because you think they’ll damage your prose, try this as an exercise.

Take a few pages of a draft you want to clean up (but are afraid to). Save a copy of it (the original), then save a second copy and give it to a writing friend you trust. Give them explicit instructions: mercilessly cut the filler words (rephrasing when necessary) and return the draft. Let both versions sit unread for a week or two, then pull up and read the edited version. Think about how it looks to you. Put it aside, then read the unedited version and compare the two. Which is superior? What, if anything, has the unedited version lost? Which, if any, of the changes would you argue strenuously to undo?

I’ve done this exercise with authors before, including with drafts of “final” manuscripts that were about to be turned over to a publisher after months of work. The highest praise you can receive in this situation is “I didn’t notice that you’d edited anything until I looked at the older version, but then…wow, you really changed a lot, but it didn’t hurt my writing!”

If you’re much of a language person, you’ll probably (←potential filler) notice that many of the words in the above list look like the same part of speech: adverbs. If you’ve had any amount of writing instruction beyond basic school requirements, you’ve probably been told at some point that adverbs are evil. That’s not strictly true, but many writers heavily (←potential filler) overuse adverbs (and adjectives). The fanatical approach—trying to purge them all—isn’t realistic, but in an average mid-stage draft by a competent writer, the majority of modifiers can be cut with little effect on the text.

Of course, you also need to realize as a writer (and equally if not more so as an editor) that the use of these words is not strictly as filler. Word selection, including the use of filler words, is often a matter of style as well. If you take the crude (but effective) approach of searching a manuscript for any of these words, you should never do that as an unmonitored search-and-replace. You should review the use of each word, in the immediate context of the sentence and in the larger context of character and story, before you decide to cut it.

Trying to expunge filler words too enthusiastically, especially based on a list, would be similar to the new student in a first year writing workshop who hears the advice, for the first time, that passive verbs are weak. Then, not fully understanding the idea, spends hours trying to remove all “to be” verb forms. That’s not a good idea.

Going after specific words or short phrases will only get you so far, anyway. You might search on “though” (or “although”) to try to reduce the number of times you’ve used it as filler, but that’s better thought of as only a starting point. It’s better to look at your sentences, your paragraphs, and your overall style holistically: Why are you using sentence structures that tilt naturally to using “although?” Is the rhythm of your sentences too predictable because of this? Does this overreliance suggest a deeper problem with how your narrator (…you…) is relaying the story to the reader? No simple search will ever be enough to address this sort of problem. If I might be permitted a small plug: this is why even the work of an excellent and thorough writer will improve under the right professional editor.

One last comment on fillers: self-analyze yourself a little, by whatever method works. You might discover some quirky filler words you use which aren’t on any list. That’s a good thing to be aware of.

This discussion continues in Part 2: Sentence adverbs.

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small businesses meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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2 Responses to Filler Words and Filter Words

  1. I always enjoy your articles, but in this case will have to dissent slightly. “…many writers heavily overuse adverbs” distinguishes a common habit from one that is not so common. “Many writers overuse adverbs” would hardly make the same point. Without qualifying the “many”—how many is “many”?—it borders on meaningless. Or only certain writers “heavily” overuse adverbs. As you admitted, adverbs clearly have their place in imparting a refined sense of meaning, if used carefully. However, I’m with you fully on “though” and “although.” Whenever I find myself starting a sentence with these words it’s a signal I need to rewrite it. My last two books—one nonfiction and one fiction—were published by recognized publishing houses almost entirely as I had edited them. Publishers are far from infallible, of course, but in my case both had assigned editors to my books and they found very little to correct. Did I use adverbs and adjectives? Certainly. But judiciously.

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    • I can’t argue with your success, Sean!
      I guess it’s a matter of opinion. Or personal experience. Or maybe determining what “many” and “heavily” mean.
      We could chalk it up to exaggeration on my part (except that my use was meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek).
      I can easily stand behind a revision to “many writers overuse adverbs in early drafts,” which would align well with my experience (and what I meant to say). There seems to be general agreement that careless use of adverbs makes for weaker writing, but of course there’s always a counterexample (and the Harry Potter books come quickly to mind in this case).

      Like

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