Whether you’re writing a journal article, a dissertation, or some other academic essay, strong, concise sentences are the most effective choice for conveying messages to your audience. In this third installment about editing for wordiness (i.e., how to reduce word count), we focus on something you may not realize you’ve been doing: using filler words. For example, you should definitely take a close look at this very sentence because there are some things we did here that you probably weren’t aware were problematic! By reading this article, we hope you realize how toxic fillers are to your writing. So, if you want to draft more powerful sentences, read on!
Tip #3: Cutting Fillers & Unnecessary Words
If you look at the last sentence of the preceding paragraph, you’ll find us guilty of our category 3 wordiness offense! That is, we used many filler words that we should have eliminated. (By the way, if you’re wondering what our other categories are, we’ve written about two others so far—nominalizations and prepositions—and we’ll share a few more with you over the next few weeks!)
What’s a filler?
Fillers are words that add no meaning to a sentence and merely “fill the space.” Why are we discussing fillers (typically a habit from spoken language) when we’re writing about editing? Simply put, more often than we realize, we write how we speak. Take our blog, for example. We’ve intentionally written this in a conversational tone. (Have you found some of the fillers we’ve used?) While it’s okay for us to do so (since we’re not worried about word count and are aiming to deliver you informative and fun editing advice), if we were writing an academic or research paper, however, we would be more careful to write concisely.
For general and academic writing purposes, avoid fillers and other unnecessary words and phrases.
Let’s look at the following examples:
- There is an octopus sitting on top of my car.
- This is actually an interesting question.
- In order to apply the new method to our entire system, perhaps we should perform a local test.
Can you spot the fillers and other unnecessary words in the above sentences? Grammatically, these sentences are correct, but they would be shorter if we remove some unnecessary words.
- There is an octopus sitting on top of my car. [10 words]
- This is actually an interesting question. [6 words]
- In order to apply the new method to our entire system, perhaps we should perform a local test. [18 words]
Let’s look at the revisions below.
- An octopus is sitting on my car. [7 words]
- This question is interesting. [4 words]
- We should perform a local test before applying the new method to our system. [14 words]
As shown in the examples above, eliminating filler words can significantly reduce your word count! On average, we’ve cut the word count of the sentences above by 25-30%. Look at your most recent writing. Now imagine it 25-30% leaner by eliminating fillers alone. Amazing, right? Wait until you apply our other word-count reduction rules!
How to identify and revise fillers
To help you strengthen your writing and editing skills, we have compiled a list of common fillers and other unnecessary words and phrases, below. While you can revise words and phrases in many ways, we’ve prepared some suggestions that work well in most situations.
|Filler or Unnecessary Word/Phrase||Suggested Revision||Example|
|A… then B… [chronological relationship]||Use the structure “A… and B…” Sometimes, readers can understand sequences because of causality implied in the sentence’s context.||Joe ran up the hill then fell back down. → Joe ran up the hill and fell back down.|
|Absolutely, Certainly, Completely, Definitely||Delete. In most cases, the verb accompanying these adverbs imply 100% unless otherwise qualified.||We absolutely agree with that theory. → We agree with that theory.|
|All of the||Use “all the.”||All of the cells ruptured. → All the cells ruptured.|
|As to whether||Use “whether.”||He was uncertain as to whether he would attend the event next week. → He was uncertain whether he would attend the event next week.|
|At all times||Delete. If you state a general fact, it is always true unless you qualify it otherwise.||You must follow these rules at all times. → You must follow these rules.|
|Commonly||Delete. Since “commonly” implies a general statement, it’s unnecessary to use when your statement is a general fact.||People once commonly believed that the sun revolved around Earth. → People once believed the sun revolved around Earth.|
|Due to the fact that||Use “because” or restructure the sentence using stronger verbs.||Due to the fact that we have limited resources, we will need to ration our daily intake. → We must ration our daily intake because of limited resources. OR Limited resources require us to ration our daily intake.|
|For all intents and purposes||Delete.||For all intents and purposes, this project will be run by the Zurich office. → This project will be run by the Zurich office.|
|For the purpose of||Use “to” + verb.||For the purpose of creating a new cohort, we would like to… → To create a new cohort, we would like to…|
|Has the ability to||Use “can.”||Jackson has the ability to mesmerize an audience with his charm. → Jackson can mesmerize an audience with his charm.|
|I/we believe; In my/our opinion||Delete unless it would become unclear that the sentence reflects your thought alone. For example, if you are describing other people’s thoughts and want to contrast those ideas with your opinion, you may wish to use these fillers. However, use them sparingly. In most cases, you can avoid the filler, as shown in the second example in the next column.||In our opinion, our results are inconclusive. → Our results are inconclusive.Scientists believe that water once flowed on Mars; however, we believe this theory is unlikely because… → Scientists believe that water once flowed on Mars; however, this theory is unlikely because…|
|In spite of the fact that||Use “despite” or “although.”||She agreed to volunteer for the event in spite of the fact that she was busy with other work. → She agreed to volunteer for the event although she was busy with other work.|
|In terms of||Delete and restructure or use “about” or “regarding,” depending on the context.||We can agree with you in terms of the proposed timeframe. → We agree with your proposed timeframe.In terms of price, we would like to request a discount. → Regarding price, we would like to request a discount.|
|In the event that||Use “if.”||In the event that you can’t meet the deadline, please contact us immediately. → If you can’t meet the deadline, please contact us immediately.|
|In the process of||Use “while” or “when,” depending on the context.||In the process of starting a new business, I hired an assistant. → When I started a new business, I hired an assistant|
|In order to||Use “to.”||In order to advance to the next level, we must pass this exam. → To advance to the next level, we must pass this exam.|
|It is important to note||Delete. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t be writing it, right?||It is important to note that inclusion and exclusion criteria are not used to reject people personally. → Inclusion and exclusion criteria are not used to reject people personally.|
|It is possible that||Use “can,” “could,” “may,” or “might,” depending on the context.||It is possible that the show will be canceled due to inclement weather. → The show could be canceled due to inclement weather.|
|Just, Really, Very, Even||Delete.||He really loves winter, especially when it snows. → He loves winter, especially when it snows.|
|Needless to say||Delete.||Needless to say, the project will end tomorrow. → The project will end tomorrow.|
|That||Delete unless it is essential for making the sentence clear.||She believed that he was innocent. → She believed he was innocent.She liked the house that sat on top of the hill. → She liked the house that sat on top of the hill. ["That" is essential to explain which house.]|
|The fact that||Delete and restructure.||Mary hated the fact that she had to work on Mondays. → Mary hated working on Mondays.|
|There/Here/It is…There has/have been…||Delete and restructure to create a stronger active subject/verb. These phrases distract from your sentence’s main point.||There have been many discussions among the scientific community about ethical boundaries in gene-splicing research. → The scientific community has frequently discussed the ethical boundaries in gene-splicing research.|
|With regard/reference to||Use “regarding” or “about,” depending on the context. You can also rearrange your sentence to eliminate the “with regard to”/”regarding” phrase.||With regard to your previous questions, we will answer them during our meeting later today. → Regarding your previous questions, we will answer them during our meeting later today. OR We will answer your previous questions during our meeting later today.|
Can you think of any other fillers you use regularly? After seeing our examples above, how would you edit your fillers?
Also, if you’d like to try a few exercises, please see the exercises below.
- In the end, we’d like to choose option A.
- We just need to move on to the next task; otherwise, we’ll really run out of time.
- While we believe this project can be completed in three months, in order to do so, we will need to incur additional costs.
- In the event that I don’t make it on time, please start without me.
- With reference to the new project, it is possible that we will start next month.
- It is important to note that you can apply to the program at any time you want; however, due to the fact that we admit participants on a rolling basis, we may have no room left if you wait too long.
- We’d like to choose option A.
- We need to move on to the next task; otherwise, we’ll run out of time.
- While this project can be completed in three months, to do so, we will need to incur additional costs.
- If I don’t make it on time, please start without me.
- We can start the new project next month.
- You can apply to the program at any time; however, if you wait too long, we may not have any room because we admit participants on a rolling basis.