Filler words and useless phrases in writing

This reflects my opinions.

Having just been to When Words Collide, I have been editing my novel The Tower of the Ancients, cutting unnecessary words, phrases and sentences.   Adverbs are, these days, considered a sign of bad writing.  Same for adjectives, although not to the same degree.  However, I defend the value of adjectives in particular and even adverbs.  Some are actually (!) useful. Sure, “very tall” is weak, but “gloriously sunny” tells a lot, not just about the weather, but the character’s mood and relationship to her surroundings.  And “blue” is an adjective. Just try to say that something is blue in one or two words without using “blue”.  You could be poetical and liken the object to the sky, an ocean or the eyes of a character that has already been established as having blue eyes.  That could be a powerful solution, but it is the opposite of efficient tight writing.  Furthermore if a character would use adverbs, then so should his voice.  That includes all speech and even any 1st person narrative. The upshot is that there are limits to how rigorously any rule should be applied.   Here is my list:

  • very              Usually a weak word and should be replaced. However, Watch out for constructs like: “The lie wasn’t very big”.   That “very” is important.  Also, “I was also very, very hungry.”
  • really            Like “very”, this one is insidious.  It has proper uses, but for emphasis outside of speech:  yech!
  • there is         Get rid of them, but watch out for constructs like “That chair there is green.”  The noun is “chair” and the “there” is pointing it out.
  • there was/were Same as for there is.
  • knew that      This is a bad one for me. Usually should be removed.
  • saw that        Hardly any for me. Usually should be removed.
  • I saw             Depending on emphasis this could be useful, but not usually, except for the accusation “I saw that.”
  • so                  Some characters might use it to mean very, but there also good uses for this word.  Don’t use it for “very” in prose.
  • that/then        It’s a judgment call on this one. If the sentence has any complexity, then use it.  If not, don’t.
  • and then        Cut it. With prejudice.  Sometimes it’s the “and” that needs to go, sometimes the “then”.
  • of                   “off of”, “outside of” Sentences ending in “of”.  Bleh!!!!  Don’t need to hunt for this one.  It’s so horrible that I know I don’t use it.
  • seemed         It’s useful when a character can’t connect the dots, but otherwise it’s distancing.
  • quite              It’s useful esp. when you have a character that is used to understating issues, but easy to over-use.
  • just                Also has it’s valid uses, like “only”, but in other places it can be removed.
  • perhaps/maybe    Those are worth looking for.  They suggest weakness, indecision, but sometimes that is what a character has.  Sometimes a character is guessing, or speculating about the future.
  • amazing         It has its uses but usually a more specific word can be found
  • literally           Unless you are saying something that could be a joke or metaphorical, and you are emphasizing that it isn’t, get rid of this word.
  • stuff               Meaningless.  However I don’t use it except in strange circumstances or as a verb “stuff the chicken into the oven”.
  • thing              Generic.  When generic is needed: “for one thing, that is the wrong screw-driver.”  that is fine.   When the antecedent is just before it, fine.  Otherwise, get rid of it.
  • got                 This is a very (!) feeble word, and should be removed, usually (adv).  However, once in a while it the best word available.
  • constructed verb tenses   These are the continuous verb tenses (“I am eating”) or the perfect tenses (“I had eaten”).  Simple tenses are more immediate and connect better to the reader, but I strenuously disagree with the current philosophy that constructed tenses are generally bad.   Try changing these into simple tenses without changing the meanings:  “I was writing on my essay when you arrived.”   “I had been working on my essay until you interrupted me.”   “I have finished the essay.”
  • gerunds          “ing” verb forms “After walking to the store, he took a taxi home.”  So long as you are careful to not create causal temporal and logical inconsistancies, I defend them.
  • utilize/exponential/other technical words Don’t use them unless you are being technically accurate. Otherwise they are just pompous. “Utilize” is especially wasteful. “Use” means exactly the same thing and it’s shorter. “Exponential” doesn’t mean “big” or “unexpected” or “sudden”. People who use it to mean those things merely sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about. Of course, if the character in the story is a pompous sort of person…

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