There are three kinds of words to keep an eye on during the revision process: filler words, overused words, and words that are repeated too close together. Cutting out each of them will tighten your prose and make it more polished.
What are filler words, and why are they a problem?
Filler words are unnecessary words that take up space without adding anything to the sentence. They slow down the pace of a scene and make reading seem like a chore. It might not seem so bad to use a filler word here and another one there, but the effect is cumulative, and reading becomes a chore. For readers, it feels as if they are going for a stroll with a heavy weight tied to their leg.
So instead of bogging your story down with unnecessary fillers, make every word count.
Here’s a list of filler words to avoid in your writing
Most of the examples I’m using are from the first draft of my current work-in-progress. While you are getting the story down on paper for the first time, don’t worry about filler words, but during the revisions, do a search for every filler I’m listing below. If the sentence would be fine without it, take it out.
Adverbs are often unnecessary and can either be cut or the adverb/verb combination can be replaced with a stronger verb.
She walked stealthily.
Or: She crept.
- Filter words
No, not filler words. FILTER. Filters are words that describe the POV character perceiving or thinking something, e.g., she saw, he heard, she realized, he noticed, etc. Filter words not only make your sentences clunky, they also distance readers from your point of view character, so go through your manuscript and cut out most filters. Here’s a blog post that explains more about filters and how to avoid them.
She saw him dash across the street, dodging traffic.
He dashed across the street, dodging traffic.
- A bit/a little
She would have looked a bit like a bigger-framed, more athletic version of Marilyn Monroe if not for the lightsaber in her hands.
She would have looked like a bigger-framed, more athletic version of Marilyn Monroe if not for the lightsaber in her hands
To her, the two girls looked absolutely identical, right down to the freckles on their noses.
To her, the two girls looked identical, right down to the freckles on their noses.
Of course Denny would assume the compliment had been meant for her clothes, as if she couldn’t believe Eliza could actually like the way she looked.
Of course Denny would assume the compliment had been meant for her clothes, as if she couldn’t believe Eliza could like the way she looked.
She had been the one to insist on not exchanging names, but now the need to know was almost overwhelming.
She had been the one to insist on not exchanging names, but now the need to know was overwhelming.
- Began to…/started to…
Most of the time, “began to” or “started to” weaken your sentence, so it would be better to cut it out and let the more powerful verb stand on its own.
Eliza’s throat started to burn.
Eliza’s throat burned.
She sensed that it wasn’t a lack of interest holding Denny back, but she wasn’t completely sure what Denny feared would happen if they met face-to-face.
She sensed that it wasn’t a lack of interest holding Denny back, but she wasn’t sure what Denny feared would happen if they met face-to-face.
She definitely hadn’t expected such a warm welcome.
She hadn’t expected such a warm welcome.
She slid even lower in the booth and directed her gaze to her plate, even though it was empty by now.
She slid lower in the booth and directed her gaze to her plate, even though it was empty by now.
- For a moment
I have edited manuscripts with dozens of for a moments on every page. My personal pet peeve is long moment. It seems like a contradiction in terms to me since a moment is a “brief period of time” according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
Bella studied the photo for a moment, then sent her a questioning look.
Bella studied the photo, then sent her a questioning look.
- Just (in the sense of “merely”)
Just is probably the word most authors overuse. I was amazed to find out I had used it 380 times in my first draft.
She was tempted to just delete that damn No More Frogs app from her phone.
She was tempted to delete that damn No More Frogs app from her phone
It only took a minute or two until Salem held up both hands.
After a minute or two, Salem held up both hands.
But when his answer finally came, it was pretty short.
But when his answer finally came, it was short.
She wasn’t quite ready for their evening to end, but at the same time, she was grateful to escape and get some time alone so she could sort out her feelings.
She wasn’t ready for their evening to end, but at the same time, she was grateful to escape and get some time alone so she could sort out her feelings.
Really is another word nearly every writer overuses. In most cases, you can simply cut it or replace it with a stronger word.
He was really tall.
He ducked as he entered her apartment.
The slightly worn, plum-colored couch didn’t match the easy chair, but that only added to the charm of her place.
The worn, plum-colored couch didn’t match the easy chair, but that only added to the charm of her place.
Most of the time, using suddenly or all of a sudden isn’t necessary. Just let the action occur without any prior transition—that SHOWS readers that it happens suddenly, without you having to TELL them.
Suddenly, the phone rang.
The phone rang.
Check every occurrence of that in your manuscript. If the sentence makes sense without it, cut it.
She knew that some promises were impossible to keep.
She knew some promises were impossible to keep.
Most of the time, you don’t need then to show that one thing is happening after another. Readers will assume that events occur in the order in which you mention them.
She grabbed the dish towel from the counter, twirled it a few times, and then playfully snapped it across Salem’s backside.
She grabbed the dish towel from the counter, twirled it a few times, and playfully snapped it across Salem’s backside.
- There was/there were
There was/were is a weak verb. Replace them with action verbs that create vivid images in the reader’s mind.
There was a stranger lurking in her doorway.
A stranger lurked in her doorway.
Denny made a show of running her gaze over Eliza, but even if she tried, she wouldn’t have been able to pretend she was a totally objective judge.
Denny made a show of running her gaze over Eliza, but even if she tried, she wouldn’t have been able to pretend she was an objective judge.
Most often, “sat down” can be changed to “sat” and “stood up” to “stood” without losing anything.
Heather tracked her path to the couch and kept studying her as Eliza sat down next to her.
Heather tracked her path to the couch and kept studying her as Eliza sat next to her.
Whenever you find yourself using very, it’s an indication that the verb or adjective preceding it is weak. Cut the modifier and replace the adjective or verb with a stronger one.
In the open kitchen, a glass sliding door revealed glimpses of a very small, fenced-in backyard.
In the open kitchen, a glass sliding door revealed glimpses of a tiny, fenced-in backyard.
Are filler words always bad?
I wouldn’t recommend cutting each and every word on that list. Sometimes, leaving the filler word in makes a sentence flow more smoothly. That’s mainly the case in dialogue. Filler words make it feel more natural because we do use fillers and unnecessary words when we talk.
What are overused words?
Overused words are words that you used too often in your manuscript. Some of them could be fillers; others might be perfectly fine words—if used in moderation. Every writer has their pet phrases that they overuse because it’s the first thing that comes to mind, and that’s okay—during the first draft. But in the revision process, your task is to find them and delete at least some of them.
Every writer has different words that they overuse, so I would suggest keeping a list of pet words and phrases that your beta readers and editors point out to you. Check your manuscript for each of them.
Here are a few overused words that I have found in many of the manuscripts I edited:
For a list of overused body language, gestures, and facial expressions, check out this blog post.
What are repeated words?
Repeated words are words that used two or more times in close succession, e.g., on the same page. It creates a word echo that draws readers’ attention and pulls them out of the story for a moment. While you are revising your story, keep an eye on identical or very similar words used too close together.
As Jenny twisted toward a bag in the backseat, the outside of her breast brushed against Parker’s side.
As Jenny twisted toward a bag in the backseat, the outer curve of her breast brushed against Parker’s side.
What should you do with overused and repeated words in your manuscript?
Since it’s hard for writers to know what words they are overusing or using too close together, having a beta reader keep an eye on overused words and phrases can be helpful.
The list above might also be a good starting point. Once you are done with your first draft, do a search (CTRL F) and find out how often you used each of these words in your manuscript.
If you find you are using some of them too often, especially on the same page, you can:
- Delete the overused word if the sentence would be fine without it.
- Cut adverbs and replace the weak adverb/verb combination with a stronger verb. For example, she walked quickly could become she sprinted.
- Replace the overused word with a synonym, e.g., looked with studied or gazed. Be aware that this sometimes isn’t the best solution. If you replace a word with one that is more uncommon, it’ll draw attention to itself. You want your reader to focus on the story, not on the individual words. Also try to avoid replacing one word with another, which you might also be using too often.
- Rewrite the entire sentence.
- Cut the entire phrase or sentence if it doesn’t move the story forward.
So, what are the words you find yourself using too often in your manuscripts? Please let us know in the comments!