One of the things my authors ask me about most often is how they can cut down the number of words in their manuscript. Or they might say it feels heavy or wordy. There might be many reasons for this, but one of the most simple – and one of the most straightforward to resolve – is their use of filler words and phrases (to say nothing of favourite words). I wrote a blog post on the subject of killing your darlings some time ago, but have been inspired to write another (yes, it is very short) post after reading a few lines by an author whose books I’m currently enjoying – Genevieve Cogman.

Just a little reminder: filler words and phrases tend to be redundant word and phrases – those that are not necessary and can be done away with without affecting the sense of the text. An example might be ‘He walked into the kitchen and proceeded to make a cup of tea.’ Why not ‘He walked into the kitchen and made a cup of tea.’? Sometimes we need fillers to help the rhythm of the sentence, but more often than not, when someone starts or begins to do something, they’re already doing it, and the filler (I nearly wrote ‘use of the filler’ there – see how easily we can all get caught?) merely adds narrative distance – a lag between the action and the actor, and thereby between the text and the reader.

I really wanted to talk about favourite words, though. There’s one of mine, up there, at the beginning of the second paragraph. Just. It’s a favourite of so many people, you would be surprised.

  • Why are favourite words not a good thing? Simply because they are favourites means we tend to overuse them, which results in repetition. Even a casual reader notices repetition (see?) and it can become distracting or even irritating. I have one author whose favourite word is ‘quickly’. Whilst I don’t recommend using a thesaurus every time you have brain freeze, it’s worth it when you spot an oft-repeated word choice.
  • How can you avoid favourite words? Listen to yourself speaking in everyday conversation and note how often you return to a particular word as if it’s a comfort blanket. Read what you’ve written – and read it aloud, at least in your own head. If you think you might be guilty of repetition and favouritism, try a simple search using Word’s ‘Find’ function.

And finally – a favourite with many authors. This is an adverb used to describe something that happens ‘after a long time, typically when there has been difficulty or delay; as the last in a series of related events or items; to introduce a final point or reason; to put an end to doubt and dispute’ ( The word is often employed, however, to mean ‘after a little while’; ‘following a bit of a wait’; ‘at last’ – but not the last thing; or often just in the middle of a discussion or argument when there has been a slight pause but there is much more to come. If you think this might be one of your darlings, try to save it to use when it does what it says on the tin – finally – rather than use it when another word or phrase would work as well, or better.

I’m reading the Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman – highly recommended. I’m on book two, The Masked City, at the moment, and last night I read the following passage:

‘A couple of streets – or canals – later, they were at the mask shop. It was amazing how much time six people could take choosing a mask, but they all managed to find something in the end, as the gondolier waited, no doubt raising the eventual fee higher with every passing minute. Irene’s new garb included a pale Columbina half-mask … Irene found that she could relax a little and pay more attention to the Venice around her.’

This passage could easily have contained two or three finallys if Genevieve were not so skilled!

(Cogman, Genevieve. The Masked City (The Invisible Library series, Book 2). Pan Macmillan)

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