The Um’s and Ah’s of Writing

By Suzy Vadori

Have you ever been excited to read a book, only to find you’ve read chapter one three times and you just can’t get into it? There are dozens of reasons the writing might not grab you, but it could be as simple as the writer including too many filler words. These words creep into all kinds of writing, and can trip up your reader. But they’re easy to fix once you know where to look for them, so keep reading to find out how…

You’re probably familiar with Filler Words in speech.
These are the little words that fill the time when you’re pausing to think. “Um” and “Ah…” are both examples of words you might utter between thoughts when giving a speech in front of a crowd. I know when I’m teaching or speaking, I use the word “so…” to fill my gaps, and I’m working on not saying it. You likely don’t use um or ah in your writing, unless your character is saying it in dialogue. Yet, you might be using Filler Words in your writing all the same.
Filler Words in your writing are harder to spot, because on first glance, they look like they belong. And in some cases, they do. These words are not technically incorrect. They won’t be flagged by spellcheck, and you’re not breaking any writing rules by including them.

So, why should you care about these little words?
Much like listening to someone speak who says um before every sentence, filler words in writing can slow the pace of your writing, take up valuable wordcount space, and worst of all, annoy your reader, even if they can’t put their finger on why they aren’t enjoying your story.
What do these offensive little words look like? They masquerade as legitimate words. But they don’t add to your story. ‘So’, ‘that’, ‘really’, ‘very’, ‘just’, and ‘like’ are all examples of words you might be using as filler. You probably have a few of your own, as well.
That is the word I see used as filler most commonly in my Book Coaching clients’ manuscripts and it can show up between 1-2,000 times in a first draft manuscript. That’s a lot of words! But I’m not suggesting you can take them all out. Some of them are needed.
When that is used as a filler word, it looks something like this:
With Filler: One slight move and she could clasp the security that he offered.
Without Filler: One slight move and she could clasp the security he offered.
Notice that these two sentences mean exactly the same thing, while removing the word that.

But, why bother? There two main reasons you need to hunt these little words down in your writing and squash them.

  1. Your readers’ brains recognize filler words that don’t add anything to your sentences, and skip over them, tripping a bit on the way by. This can slow the pace of their reading and they may find it less enjoyable. Don’t annoy your reader!
  2. Regain valuable wordcount. The ability to eliminated thousands of words without giving up any part of your story and making your writing stronger in the process is a powerful editing tool, especially if you are a writer who tends to overshoot your wordcount target, and have to trim your manuscript back during the revision process. But even if you aren’t over your wordcount, eliminating filler words could free up enough space to add a whole new scene. Much more interesting than boring fillers.

Ready to hunt for filler words in your manuscript?
Use the find function on your word processor to search for each filler word, to see if you use them. Warning: don’t just find them and delete them, because these words have a purpose in some sentences, so you need to look at each one and see if it can be eliminated, or the sentence can be reworked without it.

If you find a word that you’re using as a filler, a good target is to reduce your instances of it about 70%. This is a great editing task to complete on days you’re feeling less inspired to write. It all has to get done, so use your time wisely.
Pay attention to the little things like filler words when you’re writing forward. You’ll start to use them less in your drafts, so that you don’t have as many to remove later. Your readers will thank you, even if they don’t know why they’re flying through your pages, and loving them.