What are filler words, and how do they weaken your writing?


Filler words are empty phrases that add nothing substantial to your novel. They add baggage to your sentences and weigh down your paragraphs. While fine in light moderation, in excess, they become noticeable to the reader. In the worst cases, filler words will pull the reader out of your story. The more direct and concise you can be, the better your writing style, pacing, and flow. We want to keep our readers pinned to the page. So, when you are deep in the editing weeds: Kill the fluff!


At what stage of the editing/re-writing process should you trim filler words?


I recommend performing a filler word cut right before sending the manuscript to your editor. Don’t do it after completing your first draft. Many of those early passages will be completely transformed and all those filler words will change and be re-written.  It’s a much better use of your time to wait until you have made a few more passes through your novel to ensure the foundation of the story is in place first.


What do you replace filler words with?

Many can be removed entirely. Read your sentences with and without the filler words. Can the fluff be omitted, and the sentence keeps its integrity and strength? Challenge every word. Learn to say something with less yet hold impact.


When do you keep filler words?

In dialogue. It’s how we naturally speak. Peppering your manuscript with filler words outside of dialogue isn’t a death sentence for your novel. In some sentences, it makes sense to keep them. The trick is to notice when they are superfluous and add nothing to your story. When in doubt, ask your editor, and know with practice, comes proficiency.


Here’s a list of flab examples to eliminate from your writing, and ways to replace them with something stronger.


  1. Feel/Felt: Be bold in your writing. State emotions clearly. Instead of saying “She felt sad” use powerful verbs to show-vs-tell. Show us what “sad” feels like for your character. This will add longer, more evocative scenes for your writing. Any sensory words can fall under the feel/felt category. For instance, don’t say “I saw this happen.” Pull the reader closer to the emotion and bring them deeper into the experience. Instead, say “This happened.” Filling in the blank for what “this” is, of course. The reader will hear the noise with your character. The reader will feel the emotion the character feels, because they share the feelings, the experiences, alongside your characters. Other words that fall under the feel/felt category are: wonder, thought/think, know, realize, looking/looked.


  1. Adverbs (words ending in ly): Personally, I like adverbs. However, too many can clutter up a story. Oft times, you can use one beefy adverb to replace a string of three or more. My editor always advises “pick one.” Other times, omission is the stronger choice. Instead of saying “she was seductively gorgeous” change it to “she was seductive.” Then continue to show what makes her gorgeous. Let the reader see the gorgeousness of this femme fatal, through the eyes of her observer.


  1. Transitionary words: Words like now, but, finally, suddenly, and then are fine unless utilized in excess. Check the beginning sentences of your paragraphs. Do they repeatedly start with “now this happened” or “then this happened?” Word repetition leads to clunky writing that stands out to readers and disrupts flow. Find more creative ways to transition. I like to use active verbs. Instead of “Then, she crossed the floor and picked up the gun from the counter” I’ll try “Crossing the floor, she snatched the gun.” Used minimally, transition words can add tension and cliffhangers. XYZ is expected, but then THIS happened. However, use sparingly. You don’t want to see mindless strings of transition phrases filling your pages.


  1. Passive verbs: Words like was/is/had/were can be changed to verbs that make writing more interesting. Instead of saying “He was walking to the store” holds an opportunity to not only omit the weaker passive verb, but find a descriptive way to say walk, and the fun part is that you can paint and change the entire look by crafting the perfect verb. Look at these differences. “He strolled to the store.” First, cutting was improves the sentence. But what if your character is upset as he walks to the store? Strolled relays an easy-going, casual mood. “He marched to the store” shows the character is moving with purpose and drive. “He raced to the store” shows more urgency. The thesaurus is your BFF. Get cozy with one. I like to use the Merium-Webster Thesaurus online and have a tab open while writing.


  1. Cliches: Cliches are overused terms in society that over time lose their meaning. I find my early drafts littered with them. They are placeholders with opportunities to be creative and go deeper. When I am revising, I’ll either remove the cliché entirely or find a fresh way to say the same thing. To do this, think about the cliches’ inherent meaning. For example, the cliché “like a kid in a candy store” means the character is excited, happy, or surprised. Call it what it is. Don’t beat around the bush, just say it! (See what I did there? Ha!) Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. I find cliches work when used in writing humor. Revamp the expression with a clever change to a word or phrase within the cliché to surprise your reader with something unexpected.



Challenge every instance, every word. Do your choices strengthen your prose? Do they add feeling and meaning? Do they immerse your reader deep inside your story? Not all filler words need cut. The trick is learning when to let them slide, and when to keep them. As your skill grows, you will notice your writing reading smoother and blooming in interesting ways.


What are some of your personal filler words you tend to overuse? Mine are just, like, and that. The struggle is constant and real, all writers are plagued by flabby fillers. Share your overused dust-bunny filler words in the comments.


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