Have you ever noticed how we sprinkle our everyday conversation with filler words? In truth, they add no meaning to our language but they can keep the conversation going. When it comes to writing, though, we need to be more aware of them.
Take a classic filler word such as "that." If you think about it, "that" can be removed from almost every sentence we write. Here's an example. "She decided that she was going to be happy today." Wouldn't it be smoother and more concise to say, "She decided she was going to be happy today"?
As social and emotional beings, it's easy for us to tend toward the filler. Anything to get our point across, right? But, to be a prose master, you need to tighten up your writing by avoiding unnecessary filler words.
Filler Words to Filter Out
- Just — The top filler killer. In writing it makes sentences sound weak and adds nothing to the meaning.
Bad: I wish he would just walk away.
Good: I wish he would walk away.
- That — If "just" is the top filler killer, then "that" is second in command. Nine times out of ten, you could remove "that" from any sentence and not change its meaning. The fewer words you can use to make your point, the more likely it is to be understood.
Bad: She promised that she would never leave him again.
Good: She promised she would never leave him again.
- Very — We're sorry to say it, but "very" is a weak adjective. That may seem harsh, but it does little to strengthen our writing. In the name of concision, re-read any sentence with "very" and see what it looks like if you take it out.
Bad: Her chocolate chip cookies were very tasty.
Good: Her chocolate chip cookies were tasty.
- Really — Falls under the "just" category. In writing, it adds no value to your meaning. It's possible "really" adds some weight to speech if you're feeling dramatic and want to add emphasis, but you can usually leave it by the wayside.
Bad: Did you really walk the dog?
Good: Did you walk the dog?
- Literally — A cliché word that's being literally overused. It adds nothing to dramatic writing, and you will irritate many who still feel that saying things like, "I literally thought my head would explode," is a poor use of English.
Bad: When I saw him, I literally thought I was going to faint.
Good: When I saw him, I thought I was going to faint.
- Totally — An incredibly clichéd and trite word. It does nothing to strengthen writing. In truth, it makes your work appear less polished to the trained eye.
Bad: I totally lost my cool when I saw him walk through the door.
Good: I lost my cool when I saw him walk through the door.
- Due to the fact that — This phrase possibly sprung up when "because" was getting a bad rep for over usage. However, it's a poor substitute as it adds five words where one will do. In the name of concise writing, that math doesn't add up.
Bad: She lost the bid due to the fact that she was an incessant liar.
Good: She lost the bid because she was an incessant liar.
- In order to — "In order to" follows the same logic as "due to the fact that." Why use three words when two letters will do?
Bad: She went upstairs in order to pack her suitcase.
Good: She went upstairs to pack her suitcase.
- Quite — Like "just" and "very" this is often a waste of space. In the spoken language, these words can have an effect if you want to lay them on thick or throw in an eye roll. However, in a plain block of text when you're trying to convey a meaning or tell a story, "quite" has to go.
Bad: She didn't quite know what to do.
Good: She didn't know what to do.
- Perhaps — Perhaps isn’t terrible but it is on the naughty list. (We’ve also got our eye on “maybe.”) The trouble with "perhaps" is it conveys uncertainty. That's (just) about the worst thing you can do when writing. We all need to be a little more aware of our ability to (just) say what we mean.
Bad: Then she realized, perhaps they'd never been friends.
Good: Then she realized they'd never been friends.
- Actually — "Actually" is related to "really." It's one of those words that a Real Housewifemight use right before she throws a martini in someone's face. In writing, it adds no substantive value.
Bad: Actually, that never happened.
Good: That never happened.
- Almost — If something almost happened, it was close, but no cigar. Is that the truth of what you're trying to convey? Be leery of this one.
Bad: I almost wanted to say, "I love you,” but I couldn’t do it.
Good: I wanted to say, "I love you,” but I couldn’t do it.
- Slightly — As bad as fillers get. Put this word on your radar. This is another one of those "nine times out of ten" words. Nine times out of ten, we should be striking it from our writing.
Bad: It was slightly warmer today than yesterday.
Good: It was warmer today than yesterday.
- Simply — As egregious as "slightly" can be, we wanted to reinforce its uselessness with a similar crutch word, "simply."
Bad: I simply didn't know how to respond to that.
Good: I didn't know how to respond to that.
- Absolutely — This sounds like a nice word. It's affirming consent in a pleasant way. However, in writing, all it's doing is taking up space.
Bad: I will absolutely be sure to get it right next time.
Good: I will be sure to get it right next time.
Short and sweet
Ernest Hemingway's number one rule for writing was "use short sentences.” Three words. His primary goal was clarity. And he didn't choose this method because it came naturally to him. We're all inclined to use five words when two will do. However, Hemingway mastered this intention and went down in history for it.
We hope these examples will help you refine your writing process, too. We focused on some of the most obvious filler words that teachers and professors look out for. In truth, fillers aren't obvious until they're put on your radar. Once they are, it's game on! You'll almost never use that simply mundane expression ever again. Or, you'll never use that mundane expression again!