Words have power. They can empower people and tear down civilizations, and they can also bore people to tears. Back when authors were paid by the word, stuffing manuscripts full of filler words was acceptable. Nowadays, not so much.
Filler words are words that add nothing to the text. You can think of them as unnecessary words, or fluff (as we said in university). These words slow down the pace of a story, make sentences wordy, and turn readers away. Editors and writers alike focus on cutting down these words to improve a text.
Examples of Filler Words
Take a look at the following sentence:
1. She was very excited about the party, and she just couldn't wait to tell her friends about all the people that were coming over later that night.
This is an acceptable sentence, but it has four filler words that add nothing to the sentence: "She was very excited about the party, and she just couldn't wait to tell her friends about all the people that were coming over later that night."
If we take out those words, the sentence looks like this:
2. She was excited about the party, and she couldn't wait to tell her friends about all the people coming over later that night.
Sentence 2 means the same thing as sentence 1, but it reads more smoothly. It's less wordy, and readers will be able to absorb the meaning more easily. Imagine how many words you could cut out of a manuscript if you can cut four words out of only one sentence?
We constantly use filler words in everyday speech, and you will recognize many of the common ones:
These words are sometimes necessary, but often they are not; read sentences carefully to see if these word actually add meaning.
Because we use these words regularly when we speak, they sometimes slip into our writing without us noticing. If we're writing dialogue, this may be acceptable. For example, if I'm writing a YA contemporary novel, it makes sense for the protagonist to say, "So, like, what are you saying exactly? I just don't get it." If I'm writing a description of an enchanted forest, though, filler words may take away some of the magic.
Redundant words are also filler words because they do not add any new information. Look at the following sentence:
1. Her dark black coat waved and flapped in the breezy wind, making her look like a flying bird.
There are four unnecessary words in this sentence:
Dark is redundant because black is implicitly a dark colour.
Flapped and waved mean the same thing here, so one of them is unnecessary.
Breezy is a redundant adjective because we know wind is breezy.
Flying is unnecessary because the coat is flapping in the wind, implying that the bird she looks like can fly or at least flap its wings.
Once we take these words out, the sentence looks like this:
2. Her black coat flapped in the wind, making her look like a bird.
Sentence 2 is more succinct and easier to read than Sentence 1.
Here are some common redundant phrases:
They nodded their head. To nod is defined as "to make a quick downward motion of the head" (Merriam-Webster), so the words "their head" are redundant here and can be removed.
They shrugged their shoulders. To shrug is defined as "to raise or draw in the shoulders" (Merriam-Webster), so the words "their shoulders" are redundant here and can be removed.
They squinted their eyes. To squint is defined as "to look or peer with eyes partly closed" (Merriam-Webster), so the words "their eyes" are redundant here and can be removed.
Recognizing Filler Words
Recognizing filler words takes practice; sending your writing to another person is important because other people will spot filler words that you may not recognize in your own work. Editors train to catch these words so the fluff doesn't clog up good stories.
Exercise: Read through a page of your own work and see how many filler words you can catch! (I edited eight unnecessary words out of this blog post.)
An extra resource: "To Cut or Not to Cut: Filler Words in Your Speech & Writing"