How To Spot + Rewrite Fluff

Those dang pesky buggers that sneak into first drafts and weaken the writing are called filler words and phrases—also known as fluff.

If a filler word serves a purpose, keep it. The objective is to tighten the writing by eliminating unnecessary words and anything the reader might find distracting.

For example, a Bigshot Author I adore had the strangest writing tick in her debut novel. It’s a good thing I unknowingly started with book 5, or I might not have devoured two of her thriller series. I can’t tell you her name, but I will share the tic.

“Blah, blah, blah,” she said, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” he replied, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

Almost every line of dialogue had “she said, and then.” The writing tic distracted me, yanked me right out of the story, and made me want to whip my Kindle out the window. To this day I recall favorite passages from many of her high-octane thrillers, but I couldn’t tell you the basic plot of her debut till I jumped over to Amazon to refresh my memory. She’s since re-edited the novel. 🙂

FILLER WORDS

Just

Just should almost always be murdered.

Original: I just couldn’t say goodbye.

Rewrite: I couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

That 

That litters many first drafts, but it can often be killed without any harm to the original sentence.

Original: I believe that all writers kill their darlings.

Rewrite: I believe all writers kill their darlings.

The original and rewrite have another problem. Did you catch it?

Believe in this context is a telling word. Any time we tell the reader things like “I thought” or “He knew” or “She felt” or “I believe” we slip out of deep POV. Thus, the little darling must die.

Final Rewrite: All writers kill their darlings.

So 

Original: So, this huge guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Rewrite: This musclebound, no-necked guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Confession? I use “so” all the time IRL. It’s also one of the (many) writing tics I search for in my work. The only exception to killing this (or any other) filler word is if it’s used with purpose, like as a character cue word.

Really

Original: She broke up with him. He still really loved her.

Sometimes removing filler means combining/rewording sentences.

Rewrite: When she severed their relationship, his heart stalled.

Very

Here’s another meaningless word. Kill it on sight.

Original: He made me very happy.

Rewrite: When he neared, my skin tingled.

Of

To determine if “of” is needed read the sentence with and without it. Does it still make sense? Yes? Kill it. No? Keep it.

Original: She bolted out of the door.

Rewrite: She bolted out the door.

Up (with certain actions)

Original: He rose up from the table.

Rewrite: He rose from the table.

Original: He stood up tall.

Rewrite: He stood tall.

Down (with certain actions)

Original: He sat down on the couch.

Rewrite: He sat on the couch.

Original: He laid down the blanket.

Rewrite: He laid the blanket on the floor.

And/But (to start a sentence)

I’m not saying we should never use “and” or “but” to start a sentence, though editors might disagree. 🙂 Don’t overdo it.

Original: He died. And I’m heartbroken.

Rewrite: When he died, my soul shattered.

Also search for places where “but” is used to connect two sentences. Can you combine them into one without losing the meaning?

Original: He moved out of state, but I miss him. He was the most caring man I’d ever met.

Rewrite: The most caring man I’d ever met moved out of state. I miss him—miss us.

Want(ed)

Want/wanted is another telling word. It must die to preserve deep POV.

Original: I really wanted the chocolate cake.

Substitute with a strong verb.

Rewrite: I drooled over the chocolate cake. One bite. What could it hurt?

Came/Went

Came/went is filler because it’s not specific. Substitute with an a strong verb.

Original: I went to the store to buy my favorite ice cream.

Rewrite: I raced to Marco’s General Store to buy salted caramel ice cream, my tastebuds cheering me on.

Had

Too many had words give the impression the action took place prior to the main storyline. As a guide, used once in a sentence puts the action in past tense. Twice is repetitive and clutters the writing. Also, if it’s clear the action is in the past, it can often be omitted.

Original: I had gazed at the painting for hours and the eyes didn’t move.

Rewrite: For hours I gazed at the painting and the eyes never wavered.

Well (to start a sentence)

Original: Well, the homecoming queen made it to the dance, but the king didn’t.

Rewrite: The homecoming queen attended the dance, stag.

Basically/Literally

Original: I basically/literally had to drag her out of the bar by her hair.

Rewrite: I dragged her out of the bar by the hair.

Actually

Original: Actually, I did mind.

Rewrite: I minded.

Highly

Original: She was highly annoyed by his presence.

Rewrite: His presence irked her.

Or: His presence infuriated her.

Totally

Original: I totally did not understand a word.

Rewrite: Huh? *kidding* I did not understand one word.

Simply

Original: Dad simply told her to stop.

Rewrite: Dad wagged his head, and she stopped.

Anyway (to start a sentence)

Original: Anyway, I hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

Rewrite: Hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

FILLER PHRASES

As with all craft “rules,” exceptions exist. Nonetheless, comb through your first draft and see if you’ve used these phrases for a reason, like characterization. If you haven’t, they must die. It’s even more important to delete filler words and phrases if you’re still developing your voice.

A bit

Original: The movie was a bit intense. Lots of blood.

Rewrite: Intense movie. Blood galore.

There is no doubt that

Original: There is no doubt that the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Rewrite: No doubt the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Or: The Pats will be in the playoffs.

The reason is that

Original: The reason is that I said you can’t go.

Rewrite: Because I said so, that’s why. (shout-out to moms!)

The question as to whether

Original: The question as to whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Rewrite: Whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Whether or not

Original: Whether or not you agree is not my problem.

Rewrite: Whether you agree is not my problem.

Tempted to say

Original: I am tempted to say how beautiful you are.

Rewrite: You’re beautiful.

This is a topic that

Original: This is a topic that is close to my heart.

Rewrite: This topic is close to my heart.

Believe me (to start a sentence)

Original: Believe me, I wasn’t there.

Rewrite: I wasn’t there.

In spite of the fact

Original: In spite of the fact that he said he loved you, he’s married.

Rewrite: Although he professed his love, he’s married.

Or: Despite that he said he loved you, he’s married.

The fact that

Original: The fact that he has not succeeded means he can’t do the job.

Rewrite: His failure proves he can’t do the job.

I might add

Original: I might add, your attitude needs adjusting, young lady.

Rewrite: Someone’s panties are in a bunch. *kidding* Adjust your attitude, young lady.

In order to 

Original: In order to pay bills online, you need internet access.

Rewrite: To pay bills online you need internet access.

At the end of the day

Original: At the end of the day, we’re all human.

Rewrite: In the end, we’re all human.

Or: In conclusion, we’re all human.

Or: We’re all human.

Over to you, TKZers. Please add filler words/phrases that I missed. I’m hoping this list will help Brave Writers before they submit first pages for critique.

“I did not think this series could become more compelling, oh how wrong I was! Coletta delivers shock after shock and spiraling twists and turns that you will never see coming. I was glued to the pages, unable to stop reading.” 

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series, Mayhem Series and Grafton County Series (Tirgearr Publishing) and is the true crime/narrative nonfiction author of PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs (Rowman & Littlefield Group). Currently on submission, her latest true crime project revolves around a grisly local homicide. For the spring 2022 semester, Sue will be teaching a virtual course about serial killers at EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for the Central Virginia Chapter and National Sisters In Crime. Equally fun was when she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

53 thoughts on “How To Spot + Rewrite Fluff

  1. Happy New Year, Sue. Thank you for this. Checklist gold. I’m actually going to keep this one…oops…

  2. Good list, Sue. I’m guilty of many of these, but I think/hope I zapped them in my final proofing pass. SmartEdit shows sentence starts, which helps drive home the number of sentences I start with And, But, and So. It also points out redundances like “whether or not.” My editor flags “in fact”.
    I use “dialogue defense” for a lot of my fillers.

  3. A good list of reminders, Sue, esp. for nonfiction. Wm. Zinsser called it “clutter.” In fiction, Sol Stein called it “flab.”

    Very (oops) happy to see “At the end of the day” on your list. That phrase should be unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave.

  4. A few pet peeves: Some is weak. Tried to, attempted to can often be eliminated. Those should only be there if the action fails or is interrupted. Nodded his head always bothers me. We’re pretty sure people don’t nod their elbows. Preventative assumes that preventation is a word. It ain’t. The words are prevention and preventive. I’m not yet on board alright, either, but it’s becoming invasive on our shores. There’s no rule against starting sentences with and or but; Shakespeare did it all the time: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” Crash! Tinkle! I could feel an and coming. Sure enough: “And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.”

    And, of course, forget all these rules when writing poetry or anything poetry-like. If you need an extra syllable to make your anapestic decameter “Ode to a Typewriter” scan properly, whip one of the OP words out. But I often write my prose so it flows poetically; that also may require an extra alliterative or assonant word to balance another.

    • Totally/Definitely/Completely agree with tried to and some, J. And nodded his head. What else could he nod? Alright isn’t a word, either. In dialogue, it can work, along with gotta, gonna, lemme, etc. Poetry is a whole other ballgame.

  5. Great post, Sue. Thanks for the list.

    A lot of adverbs. The filler words that bother me the most are those that are in vogue. The year “segue” became popular, some of my friends inserted it into every other sentence. “Out over your skis” was another one. A couple years ago I found hundreds of sentences with “so” at the beginning while editing my manuscript, and realized I had been using it excessively in my own speech.

    I’m not sure if this is another pop quiz you’ve slipping into this post to see if we’re paying attention, but your five-star review of I Am Mayhem (Congratulations!) JUST happens to have an example of your fluff words. JUST sayin’.

    Have a great day!

    • Hahaha. It does! Can’t edit reviews, but good catch, Steve. 😀

      I’ve never heard/read “out over your skis.” What does it mean? This brings up an important point about regional dialect. A phrase may be commonplace to us but meaningless to the reader. Excellent point.

  6. Guilty as charged. I’ve committed most of these writerly crimes. “Just,” “very,” and “that” are some of my favorite darlings, but ProWritingAid has become my weapon of choice to clean up the first draft. What I miss, my editor takes care of with her deadly red pen.

    This reminds me of Mark Twain’s advice: “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.”

  7. Well anyway, this eagle-eyed beta reader just swatted me on the nose with the fact that at the end of the day I used way too many cliches. So I’m going to sit down and begin to slash.

    How come it’s easy to spot them in someone else’s writing but not our own?

    Thanks for great reminders, Sue!

    • SmartEdit has a pass for cliches, too. I think it depends on usage. People speak in cliches all the time, so if it’s dialogue and appropriate for the character, I leave them in.

  8. First thing I thought of after reading the list was, “Guilty as charged on all counts, Your Honor” but, then, I read the comments and see (that) everyone else is copping out to them, too. The one I’m going to try to weasel out of is “that”. Sometimes “that” has to stay in a line – it’s tempting to slit it’s pretty little throat but you have to read the sentence without “that” being in there. If it doesn’t read right without “that”, then, unfortunately, it should stay. Other than that, may all the other fluffies just die a very nasty and really terrible death.

    Great list, Sue! This is working stuff that all writers should C&P no matter how much experience they have. We all fluff up from time to time 🙂

    • Yes, we do, Garry. When we’re writing “in the zone” filler/fluff slips in. Part of life, I guess. I wonder if non-writer readers catch a filler word or two. Probably not, unless it detracts from the storyline. Nonetheless, we do our best to kill those little darlings.

  9. This was related to a search I was looking on Amazon for but couldn’t find a craft book to help me out. Might be something to explore and publish? Very helpful.

  10. Great list, Sue. Add me to the “guilty as charged” list. Add “definitely” and “absolutely” to my own list of unnecessary words, though, in my defense, I used those more often in emails and social media. Perhaps the court will take that into consideration 🙂

    I’m filing this one away for future reference! Have a wonderful Monday.

  11. I can’t say I’m shocked a traditionally published book had so many problems, but I’ve seen so much of this over the years that I’m sadly not. (Repeat the mantra of frustrated, unpublished authors after me: This is crap. Why can’t I sell my crap?).

    Some authors don’t understand why they shouldn’t self-publish that first novel without massive rewrites and a good editor. Bad writing doesn’t sell other books.
    The other day I was looking through an email from one of my free book sites, and I saw a first book that I’d read about five years ago. I had the equivalent of a PTSD flashback at the sheer horror of this book. It was the worst book I’ve ever read, and I taught fiction writing for over thirty years and have judged thousands of first books in various contests so my bad book list is pretty dang full. I took a peek at this book with the hope the author had at least cleaned up the bad writing, I had no desire to see if the plot and characterization had improved, and nope. Don’t be a bad example in a master class on writing, folks.

    My suggestions on this topic: I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote my first books, but I did figure out my various problems as far as repetitive and weak words so I created a check list on an index card that I used during rewrites. It helped speed up the rewrites.

    Also, don’t be so determined to kill the fluff that you suck the life out of your and your view-point-character’s voices. We’re writing fiction, not technical manuals.

    • Well said, Marilynn! You’re right. Over-editing can lead to the destruction of voice and/or indistinguishable characters, and that’s worse than leaving in a few filler words.

      Sad story about the self-published author who didn’t care enough to learn the craft. Unfortunately, they’re out there.

  12. Thanks, Sue…great list of my authorish sins.

    Currently editing a WIP I started about 4 years ago, before I’d really (!) gotten my toes wet in the publishing waters.

    Oy! What a mess…it’s both fun and not so fun. The fun part is seeing how much I’ve learned-a lot right here.

    🙂

  13. Great list that I’m printing out. One I would add: “When it’s all said and done.”
    I’d like to point out that sometimes the filler word can work. An example:

    Original: Believe me, I wasn’t there.–If you have one of the suspects say this, readers may think they are lying. (As well as the detective)

    • Great point, Patricia! Guilty people use “Believe me” all the time, and it cues the detective to the lie. Many of these don’t apply to dialogue.

  14. Good list. “just” and “very” jump out at me as a couple of fluffies in particular that I have to be mindful of & edit out.

  15. Great post, Sue. I spent the morning searching my current WIP for each filler word on your list. The ones I deemed unnecessary provided opportunities to rewrite and condense. I am happy to report I just whittled an obese 7,800 word ms down to a muscular 7,300 words. Many thanks!

  16. When writing my first draft, I overuse these words: so, actually, however, for now, especially at the beginning of sentences. I also overuse “that” to connect phrases. Often, I am aware of these fluffy placeholders, but they do help me write the first draft more fluidly. During editing, I rewrite them out.

    I think the only good use of the word “literal” is when you need to label a type of document translation such as free translation, adaptive translation, literal translation, etc. As for the adverbial form, literally, I have struck it from my vocabulary.

    • Good point, Sue Ann. Allowing fluff while writing the first draft does free our minds to create. Stopping to edit filler words would yank us right out of the zone.

  17. When I draft, I might say anything – filter words, cliches, etc. – but I’ve become pretty ((<- fluff!) good at spotting them to edit them out.

    One thing that bothers me are sentences that begin with "There were/are". Not only fluff, but boring fluff.

    Instead of "There were four dogs at the park that day", I would write "Four dogs chased each other through the park".

  18. I find these tics (not “ticks”) useful in humanizing and differentiating speakers. I can’t give everyone a distinct voice when they’re all sent through identical filters.

  19. I am not sure this phrase appears much in writing but I often hear it spoken by many people on the news or TV. The speaker usually making a heartfelt statement or answering a question will say, “For me , PERSONALLY …” I suppose it could be a verbal crutch that allows them more time to formulate an answer, similar to saying “ah” or “um”.
    Great list Sue. It’s going in the keep file.

  20. Excellent list, Sue.
    BTW, this is one of the benefits of using the Marlowe analysis app in the editing stage: it has a couple of categories that list the frequency of use of: Repetitive Phrases and also Adverbs. While one can search a manuscript for each one of these fluffy bugs (and I do), its pretty cool to see them all in chart form. (And Marlowe has a Free plan)

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