Dirty Thirty: 30 Filter Words to Delete From Your Writing
Updated: May 23, 2022
Filter words, or what I like to call dirty words, are those pesky words that slip into your writing and turn a clean script to murky. As a professional fiction writer, your work must be as clean as possible before sending it off to the editors.
When you open the cover of a fresh novel and immerse yourself into its narrative, it’s hard to imagine this pitch-perfect story wasn’t born this way. Think of storytelling like building a car: frame and body as the outline, doors and windows as the body of your writing, paint and flooring as the self-editing process, slick chrome and unique pinstriping as your editor feedback and final polish. Wiping dirty words from your manuscript are the finishing touches you give your novel-building to grow.
But not every instance of these words should be deleted. They are words after all and were created to serve a purpose. In some cases, not only do you risk your sentence not making sense without that word or phrase, but you might lose the dramatic effect you achieved that can only be gained with the use of that word. Read each sentence these words pop up in with a critical eye before smashing that delete key.
Here are my writing tips on the Dirty 30 to kick to the curb (most times!):
Let’s pause to take a look at an example of how this might look during the editing process.
Judy could see the moon shining on the lake and decides to put on her shoes.
The glint of light reflects across broken glass and nips at Judy’s bare toes. She slips into her water shoes.
Notice the difference? In the first draft, we told the reader what Judy is seeing. In the revision, we allowed the reader to experience the moment with Judy.
So far so good, right? Now, let’s dive deeper into a few more complex cases that might not be so easy to identify.
That. If the sentence makes sense by omitting it, then get it out!
It was easy to see that Logan was happy.
It was easy to see Logan was happy.
Really, Very. Cut, cut, cut! These words weaken your story. Replace “very sad” with “heartbroken” or “grief-stricken.”
Adverbs. I love those little “ly” words as much as the next. I also love cutting them out during the editing process. Most often, these words can be omitted or your sentence can be rewritten in a way that doesn’t need them.
Down, up as used in sit down or stand up. Any time you use these words after sit or stand, hit the delete button and keep on truckin’!
Then. Unless you want to pull your readers out of your story, refrain from using this word.
And then she slapped him in the face, scowling.
She slapped him in the face, scowling.
Start, begin. Every writer is guilty of these words creeping into their writing. When you come across them during the editing process, kick them to the curb!
I began to laugh.
I laughed (or, one step better) I slapped the table and doubled over with mirth.
Sudden. Don’t dilute the excitement!
All of a sudden a ghost charged from the closet.
A ghost charged from the closet.
Totally, completely, absolutely, literally. These words don’t add to your prose. The same holds for definitely, certainly, probably, actually, basically, virtually.
She was completely out of line.
She was out of line.
Just. I am guilty as charged with this one. Generally, it is not needed, especially when writing dialogue.
If Edward would just let me speak, our teacher might go easy on us.
If Edward would let me speak, our teacher might go easy on us.
The. You’d be surprised how often this three-letter word can be cut.
The sunbeams blazed across the sky.
Sunbeams blazed across the sky.
That or who. Double-check to make sure you are using the correct one. Who is tends to be reserved for when referring to people. Take a look!
She’s the woman that saved the little boy.
She’s the woman who saved the little boy.
Almost, rather, somewhat. Tighten those prose by deleting these words, or better yet, rewrite your sentence to create a stronger one.
She was somewhat angry with him.
Blood boiled in her veins.
There you have it—the Dirty 30 with a few bonuses because this girl doesn’t know when to stop!
Toss those red flags out of your writing so you can sprint across the finish line in first place. Because in the famous words of Ricky Bobby: “If you ain’t first you’re last.” Not really, but you know what I mean!
Now get out there and shift into full throttle…your story isn’t going to write itself!