Numerous friends have said once the lurid stuff starts, I’ll be positively RIVETED by the exploits of Mr. Grey and his young Ana despite any over writing. Hmmm… Why am I feeling a little scared by that?
Tightening Your Text!
What do blood-sucking leeches and filler words (…“that,” “very,” “truly,” “just,” “pretty,” “so,” “little,” etc.) have in common? They “infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words,” writes William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White—authors of the editorial bible, The Elements of Style, first published 50 years ago.
If you’re like most writers, you overuse these babies unconsciously. Sure, they’re subtle to a point, but then insidious—the infection on your page could be raging and yet you’re none the wiser.
What’s a writer to do?
First up, I advise immediately cleaning up the most glaring “rookie” filler errors. You know, those “verys” and “littles” that, other than word count, contribute zilch to your text. Obviously, you’re going to use these words, but I beg of you, do so sparingly. Agents, editors, publishers, and critics frown upon their overuse because it makes for lazy writing and boring reading.
That’s not to say, however, that times don’t change and along with them, common practices. Clearly, text has become more twitterific-conversational since our buds Strunk & White penned their masterpiece. So, rather than take their word for it, I decided to do my own informal comparison with two current best-selling titles—to see how today’s masters handle these problem children. (Call me crazy, but I actually thought blowing a few hours on a Sunday to scour books looking for key words was oddly juicing.) I chose the two following best-selling titles: Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Purple Cow, by Seth Godin.
In my made up, highly informal (and possibly faulty—let’s face it, I was eye-balling it) system for counting, I made two graphs of our evil “filler” words. Skipping each book intro, I dug in and read approximately 6,500 words of each title, checking off fillers as I went. (If only I’d had the Word docs, I’d have done a “find” search and counted in minutes vs. hours. But, no such luck.)
Next, once I tallied each word, I multiplied it by the number representing the approximate total book word count, coming up with an approximate average for each word. Hardly scientific, I know, but amusing just the same. Here’s how often the words appeared…
Just = 18 (Elizabeth’s) vs. 30 (Seth’s)
That = 324 vs. 315
Very = 117 vs. 95
So = 126 (1 per every 2.2 pages) vs. 45 (1 every 3.6 pages—about the same average for both, when factoring in size)
Really = 36 vs. 10
At all = 18 vs. 5
Little = 9 vs. 10
Truly = 0 vs. 0
Rather = 0 vs. 0
Definitely = 0 vs. 0
Certainly = 9 vs. 0
Pretty = 18 vs. 0
A bit = 0 vs. 0
Okay, counting errors aside, you’ll see both authors avoided certain no-no words beautifully. You’ll also see a trend toward the frequent use of others. HOWEVER—and this is a BIG however—these authors are so skilled in their usage that in almost every case I wouldn’t have omitted the filler word. On the contrary, what I found when comparing those numbers with the new-writer manuscripts on my desk (logging in several additional hours!), was a marked difference in the way rookie writers use filler word vs. the pros. For example, instead of using “very” in a sentence like this: “He was very nice and very strong” [a client example], see how Seth Godin uses this word…
“… Super-fast or super-slow. Very exclusive or very cheap. Very big or very small.” Would you cut anything here? Me either.
So, it’s not just how many times a word appears that makes it a wise choice or not. It’s the usage of the words that distinguishes it as filler (i.e. boring) or necessary (i.e. an added benefit). As you read your work aloud, you’ll feel and hear the difference.
In closing, I’ll leave you with an inspiring example of the strong use of the filler word “that” fromCommitted:
“…I vowed to him—drilling the words into his ear so he would grasp my earnestness—that I would not leave him, that I would do whatever it took to fix things, and that even if things could not somehow be fixed in America, we would always stay together anyhow, somewhere, wherever in the world that had to be.”
Bravo, Liz and Seth! I knew you were amongst my favorites—and most everyone else’s—for a reason!
P.S. Remember to make time to play + read + write this summer. Fun new site additions + Carmel video coming within the next few days. I’ll let you know as soon as it’s all posted. xx