As an undergraduate, I graded Freshman English papers. I learned to recognize papers written in a dorm closet after lights out. One of the clues was the number of filler words used to pad the assignment to the requisite length. I could visualize the writer sitting cross-legged with a flashlight the night before the assignment was due, counting and recounting words until the quota was reached.
I’m an old guy, and all this happened before the age of computers. (I also worked for the Physics Department as a “computer.”) Without word processing, adding words to an essay meant retyping the entire paper, which discouraged willy-nilly changes. Nowadays, however, a few key strokes will insert any sort of padding needed to reach a word quota. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that it’s just as easy to remove padding. That’s particularly good for me, because I tend to sprinkle padding into my own writing. Over time, I’ve built a personal list of filler words I can search for in my mss. Most of the time, all I have to do is delete these words to improve my writing. Let me demonstrate with a few of my favorites.
“Lots of my clients seem to lose requirements documents once their project is very well under way.”
How is that better than this simpler version?
“Many clients seem to lose requirements documents once their project is well under way.”
“I thought that the problem-solving would go better if I could cool things down.”
Instead, try this:
“I thought the problem-solving would go better if I could cool things down.”
“That” can also substitute for a noun, but referring to what?
“We never promised that.”
“We never promised the problem-solving would go better.”
“We never promised I could cool things down.”
Also, “that” may tag a place where the writing could be improved.
“I decided to attempt to establish some facts that were not a matter of opinion.”
“I decided to attempt to establish some opinion-free facts.”
What about two “thats” in the same sentence:
“We never promised to deliver that data that early.”
We never promised to deliver that data so early.
We never promised to deliver the February 1 pricing data that early.
We never promised to deliver the February 1 pricing data by December 31.
This rewrite also saves you the battle over “that data” vs. “those data.”
My greatest problem with “get” is the compound verbs. Get ahead (succeed). Get away (escape). Get away with (escape blame). Get back (revenge). Get in (arrive). Get through (endure or survive). Get up (awaken). Anyway, you get it, right?
“I get it.”
This expression is an idiom. If it’s a character speaking, the expression might be part of the voice. But outside of quotes, try other possibilities, such as,
“Now I understand the principle.”
“I see. You want me to stop the examples.”
One of the biggest dangers is in “make” + [verb] situations. Search for a single, strong verb to replace this construction.
“The Forensics Department will make every effort to make it ready.”
“The Forensics Department will strive to finish the analysis on time.”
Or, in a less formal voice:
“The Forensics Department will bust a gut to polish off the analysis.”
“Get” and “make” are both common words in computer languages. Other common computer words produce similar problems. For example, “do” exists in numerous composite forms: Do away with (eliminate). Do battle (fight). Do right by (treat fairly). Do violence to (hurt, injure). Do away with (kill). And my favorite neologism, “do lunch.”
Then there’s that computer word, “take”: Take a bite out of (reduce). Take a chance (risk). Take a dim view of (disapprove of). Take a leaf from someone’s book (imitate). Take a poke at (punch). Take after (resemble). In other words, this list could take a long time.
How long can we put up with this sort of filler? Put a damper on (inhibit). Put money on (bet). Put one’s hands together (applaud). Put someone off the scent (mislead). Put someone on notice (warn). Put the fear of God in someone (frighten). Put into action (carry out). Enough examples? So, let’s put a lid on it. (stop).
Go at (tackle). Go downhill (deteriorate). Go for broke (risk everything). Go halves (share). Go into action (start). Go on (continue). Go over (examine). Goes without saying (obvious).
“It’s going to be a long, long time before I finish the topic of composite verbs.” Or, maybe, “It will be a long, long time before I finish with computer verbs.”
“If you want to avoid such trouble, start converting those words.”
“f you want to avoid such trouble, convert those words.”
Or if you want to show more urgency, try something like this:
“If you want to avoid such trouble, convert those words. Now!”
“I designed a little workshop specially for them.”
Why not be specific?
“I designed a ten-minute workshop specially for them.”
“I designed a three-day workshop specially for them.”
More of My Fillers–and Yours
I could continue with this list, but I think I’ve made the point. Other words of mine: take, begin, better, much, good, sure, even, and just. But you’re not interested in my fillers. You want to know yours.
What filler words are on your own list? These words give you a chance to take a second look at your ms., with new eyes. My word processor allows me to search for all instances of a filler word. Each instance is another lesson for me. After a while, I learn to avoid these words altogether.
And while I’m at it, I shorten my sentences.
Gerald M. Weinberg is a member of Book View Café and hopes to blog here more or less regularly. His science fiction “First Stringers: Eyes That Do Not See” is serialized on the front page rotation. For more about him and his fiction please visit his bookshelf here on BVC: http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Gerald-M.-Weinberg/
Or his personal web page, http://geraldmweinberg.com