All Beef, No Filler
Sat Apr 16 2016
For more than a century now, "All Beef" has been the stock phrase of ad-men and Mad Men for promising consumers quality in their processed-meat products.
Why? Because in 1906, writer Upton Sinclair scandalized the nation with his novel The Jungle, an exposé of unfair labor practices and food adulteration in the Chicago meat packing industry.
The public's outrage at the industry's practice of packing sausages of all kinds with fillers like sawdust--and their outrage at paying good money for what amounted to fake food--led to the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.
And, indirectly, to the phrase "All Beef" entering the American vernacular.
Don't Make Us Read Filler
We certainly don't want to eat it, but we don't want to read it either. Thus, your duty as writer is to watch what you're putting in your writing. Are you giving us an all-beef product, or is your writing no better than that old Chicago sausage?
In my practice, I see a lot of sawdust clogging up clients' writing. Filler phrases that add length to a manuscript, but not meaning. Excess words that neither clarify nor add understanding, that add work without reward, and only serve to dilute the impact of your writing.
The best way to learn what a filler phrase is, is by example. Read this short passage, and count how many filler-phrases you spot:
Sonja sat, cross-legged in front of her campfire. The deep blue of the late evening sky peeked between the trees, the moon not yet risen over the horizon. Night sounds filled the forest around her.
She picked up a nearby stick with her hand and poked at the coals. A swirl of orange sparks leapt up into the night, and just as quickly died in blackness. The fire glowed with heat and light, warming her face and warding nearby animals away.
She ate the last bite of meat from the badger she had killed just before dusk, chewing slowly while sorting through the many thoughts whirling in her head.
I am a wereling now, she thought to herself, and realized that being so did not feel as she would have imagined. Her new strength and quickness were potent tools, but demanded respect. The badger had died in almost the same moment she saw it. She had recognized it as food, had felt her immediate need for it. And then the badger was on its back, legs twitching in the air, her knife lodged in its neck.
The badger had died just like that man back at Mole's Inn. There had been no gap between impulse and action. The part of her mind that determined whether to turn thought into deed--the part that allowed for choice--seemed to have been taken from her. And now I am a murderer, she thought, remembering the shock in the man's eyes as she'd gutted him without so much as a moment's warning.
Sonja tossed the badger's bones into the fire, her hunger mostly sated. Fatigue settled in her own bones. She had, under the power of her new were-energy and driven by the horror of what she had done, marched much further in distance that day than she had intended. She laid her bedroll out on the ground and nestled in, though it was a long time before she slept.
How many did you spot? I found 9:
- the moon not yet risen over the horizon
- filled the forest around her
- picked up a nearby stick with her hand
- the fire glowed with heat and light
- the many thoughts whirling in her head
- she thought to herself
- legs twitching in the air
- marched much further in distance
- laid her bedroll out on the ground
Why are they Filler?
The underlined phrases are filler because they tell the reader nothing that wasn't obvious already.
The moon only rises over the horizon. That's what it means for the moon to rise. Thus, "the moon not yet risen" and "the moon not yet risen over the horizon" mean exactly the same thing. Except one forces the reader to read 8 words instead of 5.
We know Sonja is in a forest because of the bit about the dark sky through the trees, so "around her" adds nothing. Of course she picked up the stick with her hand. That's what people pick things up with. And what else does a fire glow with but heat and light? We were told the badger was on its back, so naturally its twitching legs were in the air.
In every case, the fillers only make explicit that which is already implicit. The fillers only waste words describing stuff the reader's own mind would have filled in for you.
Sorting the Beef from the Sawdust
That said, you will find times when you know there are more words present than necessary, yet you can't tell exactly which ones are the filler. With beef and sawdust, it's obvious which is which. Useful narrative and filler phrases, being both made of words, are not always so distinctly different.
Take the example, "the many thoughts whirling in her head." Of course, where can thoughts whirl but in her head? "Whirling in her head" is thus filler, and yet it's a nice phrase. It conveys the emotional sense of being confused and overwhelmed by thoughts. We hesitate to simply strike the phrase according to some blunt rule.
Similarly, though the moon can only rise over the horizon, "horizon" is a solid, colorful detail word to put in your narrative. It may not add meaning, but it certainly adds flavor.
In cases like these, look for broader revisions which allow you to keep the poetic language but eliminate the redundancy:
... the moon still tucked under the horizon.
... chewing slowly, her thoughts all a-whirl.
Don't Tell us the Defaults
Consider these two alternatives:
... she picked up a nearby stick with her hand.
... she picked up a nearby stick with her tail.
The first is obviously filler. The second is obviously not. Why?
Because hands are the default thing people use to pick stuff up. But in fiction, other options are possible.
Perhaps the character is not human, and in fact has a prehensile tail (though I assure you, the Sonja in our earlier example does not). But if she did, and if she used an option that is not the default, you owe it to the reader to tell them what option she used. Otherwise, we cannot possibly visualize the scene correctly.
Readers will always visualize whatever option is the appropriate default in any given situation. If the story has established a specific default--say, by inventing a character whose arms are paralyzed and therefore must use her prehensile tail to pick things up--readers will automatically visualize that one. If the story has not established its own default, readers will borrow the default option from real life.
Filler phrases are ones which tell readers that something in the story happened in the default way. Why bother? That's already what we'll assume.
A truth, universally unrecognized by writers still learning their trade, is that readers will do a hell of a lot of work for you if only you will let them. They will fill in worlds of detail all on their own, with no help from you. By rendering the obvious details in words, all you do is prevent them from doing that work, and thereby prevent them from letting their own imaginations immerse them in the world of your story.
We all love an immersive reading experience, one in which our imaginations are in fact put to work visualizing interesting characters, settings, and events. As writers, we all want to create that experience for our readers.
Readers want to put their imaginations to work. Let them. Don't give them filler phrases to do the work for them. This is truly a case where giving the reader less ends up giving them more.