Writers in the Storm

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September 7, 2022

Fix Fluff Words –Fillers for Writers to Avoid (part 2)

By Kris Maze

In a previous Writers in the Storm blog post, we covered several common filler words to avoid.  This post extends the list of word-culprits, along with searchable lists, to help you self-edit your writing.  Take some time searching for these in your WIP and tighten your writing today.

Here are 7 insights about trimming our writing by eliminating the fluff expressions. Which ways to do you already use? Which will help you write better? Consider looking for these extraneous words when editing your next WIP.

Pro Tip: Use Ctrl + H shortcut to get the Replace box in Microsoft word (PC).  Search for the words you want to avoid and see how many you can remove from your writing.

Leading Words, Just Leading on the Reader?

Leading words are like pesky flies attaching themselves to the beginning of our sentences.  They lead into the real meat of what you have to say. 

These phrases are my common downfall.  I simply love using the word so. So, sometimes, it infiltrates into my prose. It may be part of my Midwestern vernacular that trails into my writing, but in my stories it’s a distraction that should be cut. The exception to this is in dialogue or other characterization, which is considered later.

If your goal is to make your writing lean, avoid these phrases: So, Mostly, Most times, In order to, Often.  These words do not bring enough impact to your story to keep them. Swat those pests and get them away from your work.

Words to Search:

  • So
  • Mostly
  • Most times
  • In order to
  • often

In, Out, Up, Down, Cut the Calisthenics

Writers like to add these direction words to common verbs like sit, stand, and go.  We can avoid the extra words by taking away In, Out, Down, and Up.

We may want to say the following things, but it is adequate to cut the direction word and use a simplified, more concise action instead.

She sat down on the tufted davenport.

Or:

 She sat on the tufted davenport.
They all stood up and applauded. 

Or:

They all stood and applauded.

Words to Search:

  • Up
  • Down
  • In
  • Out

Dialogue Tags

There are plenty of dialogue dos and don’ts when eliminating fluff words. We understand that dialogue is a place for making the characters sound like they actually are (or how we imagine them to be.)  Inside the quotes, we add what we want to make our characters come alive. It adds flavor to our characters and allows the story to be authentic.

But the opposite is true for those dialogue tags found outside the quotes.

When a dialogue includes more than 2 people, it may be necessary to show the reader who’s speaking, but that can also be accomplished through other means.

Eliminate most of the Robert said, or she said moments with one of following methods.

  • Add clues to dialogue words about who they are talking to. Read this example and consider trying something that works with your story content. If you know one character was riding by on a bike, but stopped for a chat, have the other person indicate that with something about a bike.
              “Want to go out on a date?”
              “It looks like there’s room for 2 on that cruiser of a bike.”
  • Add an action by the person who is speaking right after the statement and include their name as the subject of that sentence. See the difference between the two examples below.
              “I’ll even let you steer.” Robert said. He tapped the handlebars and showed Cecilia his famous gapped front teeth.
              “I’ll even let you steer.” Robert tapped the handlebars and showed Cecilia his famous gapped front teeth.
  • Add varying voices and characterizations to the dialogue.  Does one character have a drawl? Speak with a lisp? Have a tendency to gesture and grunt versus the phrasing of a highly educated erudite? Use appropriate dialogue that matches and enhances a reader’s understanding of your characters.  Your readers will enjoy your interesting variety and they will follow the dialogue with ease.

‘Went’ and So the Reader Did

One common word that can be modified is went. At times it is used as a clunky verb construction, at other times it’s an example of tired writing.  Something ready for revision.  Keep your readers engaged by trying these two tricks.

  1.  When describing what happened in your story it may be tempting to use went followed by a verb ending in -ing. An easy fix for these constructions is to use the past tense of the second verb.
He went fishing with Karl every Saturday.

Or:

He fished with Karl.

They went on painting the whole fence the worst shade of putrid green I’ve ever seen.

Or:

They painted the fence the worst putrid green I’ve ever seen.

2. We can use more specific words than went when describing actions.  Try switching out the word went for more dynamic words of movement.

They went through the park after dinner.

Or:

They strolled through the park arm and arm after dinner.
Charlie went through the doggy-door.

Or:

Charlie wriggled through the too-small-for-a-Dane doggie door.

When using went, be certain it is the right word. A stronger word can usually take its place.

Words to Search:

  • went

False Starts

Many writers fall prey to these filler phrases.  It is common to use start to, begin to, began to, begun to before the main action of a sentence.  Try a search an see how many you could eliminate from your writing.

He began to breathe again.

Or:

He took a breath.
They started to mix the batter and began to have a delightful conversation over the powder sugar scattered across the counter.

Or:

They mixed the batter and shared storied over the powder sugar scattered across the counter.

Overused Emotions & Expressions

If you have trouble with this one, you are in great company.  Most writers struggle to write facial expressions and emotional descriptions in a new way.  Avoid using clichéd writing and find ways to catch the readers attention with these important story elements.

I recommend taking a class from Margie Lawson for insight on how to write fresh.  She also offers webinars and writer-super-power packets of her foundational courses. As Margie says, “Keep the writing fresh.”  And then she teaches you how to create your own fresh writing in actionable ways.

Words to Search:

  • breath
  • breathe
  • inhale
  • exhale
  • shrug
  • nod
  • reach
  • See
  • Saw
  • get
  • Add your own culprits here

Keep notes when reading your drafts of words you overuse. Search for any words that echo throughout your writing.  We all have our special go-to phrases to cut.  Keep a list of your commonly overused phrases and learn how to rewrite them in fresh ways.

Overused Body Parts

Another way writers overuse words is by inserting body parts. The words can lose their meaning when overly used.  Sometimes it covers up more sophisticated ways to express the action in a scene.  Do a search on these body parts and see which ones stand out the most. How else could you write these?

Here is a past WITS post from Margie about writing fresh body language.  Take a look at her suggestions and see which ones you could use in your novel.

Words to Search:

  • Head
  • Eye
  • Heart
  • Hand
  • Arm
  • Foot

BONUS FLUFF WORDS TO CUT:

  • Honestly
  • Absolutely
  • Totally
  • Virtually
  • Literally
  • Completely
  • Definitely
  • Certainly

These sneaky words have their place in dialogue and perhaps in characterization.  But unless it is an 80’s teen throwback on a John Hughes scale, there is no need to add these.  They dull the flavor of your writing with weak and incorrect wording. Like totally.

I hope you have fun with your editing.  Find the places where you can turn dull phrases into page-turning writing, and you can soon have readers rushing in to read more.

What fluff elimination tip did you like from this post?  What new ones can you suggest?

About Kris

Kris Maze is an author, writing coach, and teacher. She has worked in education for many years and writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and the award-winning blog Writers in the Storm where she is also a host. You can find her horror stories and young adult writing at her website. Keep up with future projects and events by subscribing to her newsletter.

A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors.

And occasionally, she knits.

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23 comments on “Fix Fluff Words –Fillers for Writers to Avoid (part 2)”

  1. I have a down on prepositions, as you suggest. I hate it when the author says, "She looked up at the ceiling".

    And wandering body parts. I recently read a book that had disembodied eyes flying all over the place. One example: "His eyes dropped to the floor".

    1. Hi V.M. Sang,
      I had to laugh at the disembodied eyes, dropping, rolling about. It's true we use these phrases in speech, but I too am guilty of too many prepositions. Thanks for the comment!
      Kris

  2. Brilliant article. These all seem simple when you think about them, but they give writers so much trouble.

    And I am in love with the dog "helping" his master do push-ups! Adorable.

    1. Hello Sandy,
      That picture made me giggle too, and I was happy it worked.

      I appreciate the "brilliant" comment, but hope these little tips that I've learned from other wonderful writers and teachers make your writing shine brightly.

      Happy writing to you!
      Kris

  3. If this were a classroom presentation I'd be raising my hand for all of the above.

    I'm much better with dialogue tags now, but need to watch the over use of body parts. For me it's all about the eyes and eyebrows.

    I need to check out more of Margie 's classes. She is a wonder.

    Great suggestions, Kris!

    1. One cannot have enough Margie magic!

      I hope the eyebrows can contain their wriggling as you continue with your WIPs. (I enjoyed reading your Crystal Memories, btw) Thanks for the comments.

    1. Hi Bob,

      Adding more utility to each word enables the story to flow better and create that clear visual your readers enjoy.
      Glad these could be helpful.

    1. Thank you, Denise.
      It's like, such a downer when your fluff words start acting like the bad-boy from the Breakfast Club and throwing the story around the library.

      hee hee hee

  4. The word "that" is another that can often be eliminated: She knew that he was right > She knew he was right.

    Also, YES and NO in action responses to questions: He nodded his head yes > He nodded / She shook her head no > She shook her head.

    Those are two of my biggest pet peeves, in addition to the down/up ones you mentioned.

    1. Oh, the YES/NO suggestion is great! Those little redundancies add up to a lot of snooze time for the reader if we don't grab these fluff phrases and yank them out.

      Thanks, Susan.

  5. This is so helpful! I'll keep this in mind as I edit my book. I'm a culprit to using 'up' and 'down' as well as 'breathe' too much. Thank you, Kris!

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