It’s all too easy to overstuff your writing when you’re striving for a natural, unstrained tone. We lean on filler words in conversation to soften our speech and build connections, but these words don’t convey enough information to be effective in writing.
The internet is peppered with lists of “words to cut from your writing.” Unfortunately, if you don’t know why to avoid them or what to do instead, you could be wreaking havoc on your manuscript. Instead of considering these words red flags to delete carte blanche, look at them as opportunities for revision.
Words to revise
a moment (pauses, hesitations, beats) Instead of telling readers that moments are passing in which nothing is happening—because how dull is that?—show what’s happening within them. Those moments aren’t dead airspace; they’re dramatic potential. What happens during the moment: clocks ticking in the silence, birds lifting off from the trees? What do the characters feel and think?
absolutely, completely, literally, totally These modifiers pretend to add scope to the sentence, but as ubiquitous conversational emphasizers, they’ve become nearly flat. Stronger, more emphatic language is the best way to emphasize a word or idea. Or try having the character do or think something that shows how important this thing is.
actually, basically, certainly, definitely, probably, virtually These words rarely add essential information. They may be typical character voice for one of your cast of characters, but avoid them in exposition.
began, started You can almost categorically remove forms of started to and began to from your writing. The precise moment or act of beginning is rarely the point of a sentence; the point is usually the action itself.
body sensations Using body parts (especially internal organs) to telegraph emotion often creates what I call “playing the organ.” Almost without fail, body-based beats have become tired, hackneyed clichés—and while a cliché may sometimes be just the emotional shorthand you need, you’ll typically want something fresh.
Related: When body-based clichés become “playing the organ”
chronology cues It’s not necessary to lead readers through sentences with words like after, then, and next, specifying the exact order of character actions: After she Xed, she Yed, and then she Zed. Readers will implicitly assume a normal chronological progression of action unless you specify otherwise. Providing too many reminders is a mark of authorial intrusion; get out of the way and quit “telling” the story.
clichés Even though clichés are part of our shared culture and we use them all the time in conversation, most feel flat when translated to the page. If the nod to a shared experience is what you’re going for, carry on with your cliché; otherwise, twist it into a unique image.
dialogue tags Dialogue tags are road signs; use them only when necessary. If it’s clear who’s speaking, remove the tags. Don’t use them out of habit or rhythm. Action beats are a stronger method of sorting out who’s speaking; use them to reveal interesting tidbits about the characters or setting.
filter words Filter words pull reader focus to the character’s act of perceiving something, rather than to the thing itself: I could hear the train hooting in the distance rather than The train hooted in the distance. Words associated with filtering include sensory verbs (saw, looked, heard, felt) and verbs of understanding or perception (knew, watched, decided, noticed, realized, wondered, thought).
Related: Writing momentum hacks for authors
just Unless it’s building character voice in dialogue, reserve this word for describing things that are limited in scope or number.
preposition overload Twofer prepositions can nearly always be reduced to an essential single: outside of > outside; kneel down onto the dirt > kneel in the dirt; run out over the grass > run across the grass.
preposition/pronoun combos identifying the character (from her, to her, at her, and so on) Tacking a preposition/pronoun combo onto a character action when it’s already clear who’s acting is a form of filtering. It shifts the focus from the action (she watched it scuttle away) to the mechanics of the character viewpoint (she watched it scuttle away from her). (And hey, if readers don’t know who the spider was threatening before that point, you have more work to do prior to this sentence, not within it.)
really, very You could probably get away with these words to a certain extent in children’s fiction, but a more precise modifier is almost always a stronger choice than really/very plus a modifier.
stage business Gestures like turning and nodding and looking and reaching are stage business, not story action. They don’t move the plot forward. Use rarely.
suddenly The word suddenly is authorial intrusion into the story world. It’s a signal that you don’t trust readers to follow the action, so you’re going to throw a flag before the part that really matters. Here’s why suddenly is a clunker.
that Trimming that is a great way to tighten your writing, but retain it where it introduces clauses following verbs such as acknowledge, ask, believe, claim, doubt, and said; without that, the part that follows might be misread. If you overuse that, ask an editor for help. You’ll never be wrong to leave it in.
weak verbs Flat verbs like walked, entered, touched, and placed smother the life from the story because they convey no intention or emotion. How might the scene feel different if you substituted strolled, burst into, slapped, or dropped? How about hobbled, bumbled into, stroked, or shoved?
weasel words Overusing equivocators (seemed, appeared, felt like, really, probably, finally, certainly, probably, maybe) weakens the story by dampening the potential for tension. Wishy-washy characters create wishy-washy stories, so don’t let them equivocate. Make characters take a stance, right or wrong.
word watch Every author has words and phrases they overuse; yours will be different than mine or anyone else’s. Search for these words in your writing and make a list of any you even suspect are getting too much play. Near the end of your revision process, run a search for each of them. Candidates for your personal word watch list include filter words, weasel words, words from this list, and common expressions in speech such as like, make sure, oh, only, simply, well.
Find and replace
For the love of Mike (whoever that guy was), please don’t use Find and Replace to pluck words from your manuscript. Automated process are too heavy-handed for tuning fiction. Even manual deletions miss the point if all you do is delete, delete, delete. If you yanked stage business out wholesale by the roots, for example, you’d miss dozens of opportunities to revise and reveal more of the character’s inner life.
Don’t remove; revise.
Related: Give your manuscript professional polish with my free Manuscript Prep Guide
Before you can revise ’em, you’ve got to find ’em—and using Find is a good fit for that. The easiest method is Microsoft Word’s Find feature. The keyboard shortcut to open the Find box is Control + F (a command that conveniently also works on web pages—I lost so much time before I discovered this!—and in many other applications).
I prefer to search using the search box at the top of the Navigation Pane. Keeping the Nav Pane open gives you one-click navigation through your manuscript—click to hop directly to any chapter—as well as drag-and-drop functionality. Want to move Chapter 5 before Chapter 4? Grab the Chapter 5 heading in the Nav Pane, drag it above Chapter 4, and drop. It comes complete, content and all. It’s that easy.
Related: Find out how to open the Navigation Pane and style your headings to make revisions easier to navigate.
Related: The Author’s Guide to Track Changes
Want more advice like this? Sign up for Baker’s Dozen, 13 things for your writing, fresh out of the editorial oven every month.
If you’re looking for an editor to accelerate your journey from new writer to emerging author, that editor could be me. Let’s work together via story coaching to maximize your story’s potential, or let’s polish the finished product with story (developmental) and line editing. Let’s talk.