Imagine you’re packing for a 6 week trip, and you’re only allowed one small suitcase. You’d think hard about every item you put it in the suitcase. Anything not essential would just take up space.
Words are like that.
Reading is like walking — we do it without thinking, but there’s action happening in the background. Neurons firing.
The reader’s brain needs to process every word. Unnecessary words make for harder reading. Ever had to read a sentence three times to get it?
That’s usually why.
Writing short and writing concise aren’t the same.
Readers don’t mind reading a lot of words, if they’re well written. Often well written and concise go hand in hand.
When readers have to go back and re-read a sentence or paragraph — mostly, they don’t. They slog through a bit — and leave.
Often, the writer thinks it’s the topic. Gosh, maybe you should write about self-help or whatever you think it popular. It’s usually not the topic.
A good writer can make any topic interesting. If you cut all the fluff and filler words that aren’t necessary, you make it easier for the reader.
If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough. A clear sentence is no accident.
— William Zinsser, On Writing Well
Fluff & Filler Words…
Fluff words are words we commonly use when we talk, so they slip into our writing. They’re excess baggage. Here’s 8 common ones to look for…
Most of the time you can delete “that” and the sentence will have the same meaning, but will read tighter. Hit Control F and hunt that puppy down.
— He swore that he’d never speed again.
— He swore he’d never speed again
Removing the word “just” makes your sentence more assertive
— She just didn’t know what to think.
— She didn’t know what to think.
Even isn’t always a fluff word. Depends how it’s used. Don’t take out “just” and put in “even” instead. In this usage, it’s filler.
—She didn’t even know what to think.
— She didn’t know what to think.
Starting sentences with “so” is a common verbal tic that’s crept into writing. If the sentence is connected to the previous one, a comma might work better?
— So, I was going to tell you, but I forgot.
— I was going to tell you, but I forgot.
The word “somehow” robs emphasis from the action it precedes and puts emphasis on the uncertainty instead of the thing you’re uncertain about.
— Somehow, I have to find a way to tell them they can’t stay here
— I have to find a way to tell them they can’t stay here.
“Really” is used to convey emphasis, but fails spectacularly at it. Generally, if you take it out, the sentence becomes stronger and more assertive.
— The dancers really performed admirably.
— The dancers performed admirably!
Only isn’t always a fluff word. If you’re talking about an only child, for example. But sometimes we use it the way we use “really.”
— I’m only a little hungry
— I’m a little hungry
Seems isn’t always a fluff word. Unless you’re using it to be wishy washy about whether you think something or not. Don’t be wishy washy.
— It seems the sun is shining today.
— The sun is shining today.
Omit needless words — [William Strunk, Jr.]
You Used the Wrong Word!
The big Kahuna, the only word in this category. Hunt it down mercilessly.
“Very” is a qualifier. When you have to use a qualifier, that means the word you used right after it is the wrong word. It’s a vague and weak way to say something you could say more accurately and powerfully.
— The odds are very good
— The odds are good!
— The odds are excellent
Your dog isn’t “very little,” she’s tiny.
Your boss isn’t “very mean,” he’s cruel.
You’re not “very thirsty,” you’re parched.
See what I mean?
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” — Mark Twain
I worked with a guy who always said “10 a.m. in the morning” and I’d bite my tongue. I wanted to say “what do you think a.m. means?” We use a lot of unnecessary words when we talk. They creep into our writing. If something is obvious, clear, absolute, or actual, you don’t need to say it.
If it’s obvious, you don’t need to say that. If it’s not obvious, don’t say it is. If it’s only obvious to you, the sentence will be stronger without it.
— Obviously, there was nothing we could do to help her.
— There was nothing we could do to help her.
If something is clear, you don’t need to say it. If it’s not clear, why say it is?
It’s a verbal tic that we say when we talk. Writing is stronger without it.
— Clearly, I’m not ready for the meeting.
— I’m not ready for the meeting.
— Crap! I’m not ready for the meeting.
I can’t think of a word that reeks of snobbery more than ‘actually’ because we tend to use it when we’re correcting someone. If removing it works, please do.
— Actually, the author is a woman, not a man.
— The author is a woman, not a man.
We tend to use “absolutely” in a way that’s redundant. You don’t need to say something is “absolutely necessary” because necessary already means that. Other times, absolutely falls into the same class as “very,” where we’ve chosen the wrong word. Here’s examples of both…
— Are you absolutely sure?
— Are you sure?
— She was absolutely sure he was lying.
— She was dead certain he was lying.
The way we use it, “basically” is kissin’ cousins of actually. As a word, it’s not always fluff — the way we use it sure is.
— Basically, I’m going to fail this test.
— I’m going to fail this test.
It takes a lot of bad writing to get to a little good writing.
— Truman Capote
Wrong Word. Sorry.
When I see these words, I think of that meme; You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.
15. Always / Never
If there’s a faster path to divorce than hurling the words always and never at each other, I don’t know it. Often those two words stem from exasperation or exaggeration. Watch for them in your writing, because odds are you’re not being factual or accurate. Unless you are. But it’s rare. :)
— You never show up on time and I’m sick of it!
— You have been late 4 out of 5 days this week.
Surprise, it’s not a word. People often use “irregardless” instead of regardless. They mean the same. Except, regardless is a word and irregardless is not.
Use the right word, not its second cousin — Mark Twain
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about an old survey from the 1970s that found women use indefinite modifiers far more than men do. An indefinite modifier changes the phrase to be less assertive.
Using “quite” often softens the statement following it. If that’s not what you meant to do, try removing or saying it a different way.
— I was quite lucky to find an apartment before my move out date.
— I was lucky to find an apartment before my move out date.
— I found an apartment!
Often we use perhaps as a way to soften what we’re saying.
— Perhaps we should have a schedule for these tasks?
— We should have a schedule for these tasks.
Much like perhaps, we often use “maybe” to tippy toe around something that we’re afraid might make us look too assertive, or to avoid feeling offensive. Instead, it just makes us look wishy washy and indecisive.
— We’ve been working for 5 hours, maybe we could take a break?
— We’ve been working for 5 hours, I could sure use a break!
Often, the word “simply” makes the person or action feel weak.
— She simply didn’t know what to wear
— She didn’t know what to wear
21. Somehow / Slightly / Almost
I don’t need to keep drilling these, right? All of these words have proper uses. They aren’t little demons like “very” and “that.” But stop using wishy washy words. If you think something, say it.
“It is important, especially for a beginning writer, to make clear, assertive statements.”
— Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Often, we use words that are meant to inspire confidence, but they do the opposite. Yay. You get to undermine yourself and use fluff words, all at the same time.
22. I think/I believe/I feel
If you think it, or believe it, or feel it — just say it. You don’t need to tell anyone that “you” think it. You’re the writer. Who else would you be referring to?
— I think the government should increase taxes on the ultra-wealthy.
— The government should increase taxes on the ultra-wealthy!
23. Sort of/ Kind of/ a little
Phrases like sort of, kind of — they’re wishy washy. Even worse, they’re ambiguous at best and leave people wondering. That soup kind of bothers your stomach? What does that mean? Does it, or doesn’t it?
—Her stomach kind of hurt
— Her stomach hurt
People use “honestly” for emphasis. But when you add it to one sentence, it implies that some of your words are less than honest. If your whole piece is honest, why call out one sentence?
“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” — Mark Twain
The point isn’t to be a pedantic jerk. It’s to find the fluff that has your name on it.
Not all filler words have to go. If a word serves a purpose, keep it.
The point isn’t to write like a word proctologist, for gosh sakes. I’m not that pedantic. You don’t need to be, either.
The point is to become aware of bad writing habits. To find the fluff that has your name on it. We all have some.
Verbal tics creep into everyone’s writing. If you spot a few you do repeatedly, and start watching for it — cool.
That’s how easy it is to improve.
“The easiest reading is damned hard writing.”
— Thomas Hood (not Nathaniel Hawthorne)
Before You Go…
If you enjoyed this, you might like my Friday emails on writing & marketing. https://lindac.substack.com/