The art of filler word removal

Disembodied gloved hands painting on a canvas that's full of crossed out filler words. Paint tubes are scattered on the floor.

Long the bane of most every editor’s existence, editing out filler words has gotten a whole lot easier with tools like Descript

But you probably realize that just because you can edit out all your filler words in a few keystrokes doesn’t mean you should. Clicking that Apply to all button to wipe out all your “ums,” “uhs,” and “you knows” is glorious for editing scripted speech, a vlog, a lecture, a screen recording, an audiobook, even a video message — anything that’s not meant to represent an actual human conversation. 

But with interviews and other conversational shows, Total Filler Word Annihilation™ can leave your speakers sounding unnatural, even robotic. You probably want to edit out most of the filler words, but not all of them. 

So if you’re editing that kind of stuff, how do you decide which filler words to cut and which to leave in? The simple answer: remove any that are distracting, leave them in if they sound natural (or you can’t edit them out without a distracting cut). But like everything, the choice isn’t always obvious, and the decision is full of nuance. 

Knowing a little about the way filler words work on the listener’s brain can help you decide which ones might have value and which need to go. Luckily, people who wear lab coats are out there studying the heck out of it. We’ll quickly go over some of what they’ve found, then get into some editing tips, passed along by a pair of accomplished pros.

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How filler words work

Especially if you’re editing a conversational podcast or video, filler words can help convey information — about a person's state of mind, the emotion underlying their words, or their pattern of speech, which tells you something about who they are. 

Filler words are important for pacing. Particularly in comedy, they can help build tension by making the listener wait to hear what’s coming. Plus, a new psychological study shows that filler words can actually help make speech more memorable by giving the listener's brain a break to process what it just heard. 

There is also another, inescapable factor in the filler word conversation: gender. As the Journal of Language and Social Psychology pointed out, women are more likely to use “discourse markers,” such as “I mean,” “you know,” and “like.” The use of these discourse markers is correlated with how frequently women are interrupted — which is a lot more than men (there’s a study on that too). Using filler words can be a woman’s way of signaling that she is still speaking

And finally, as on any subject, there’s an academic study that concludes exactly what you’ve probably figured out for yourself: “The most effective speech occurs when filler words are used moderately.”

Filler word editing 

Of course, moderation is the goal with many things in life; the hard part is achieving it. How do you find that balance between filler-word distraction and the uncanny valley of filler-word-free conversation? And if some filler words have value, how do you determine which ones? Here’s what a few pros say. 

Isabel Hibbard, a podcast producer based in Boston, advises cutting the filler words, but then listening to your edit next to the unedited version with the filler word, and then toggling back and forth — maybe with your eyes closed — until your ear tells you which is better. “If I can hear my edit, even if it's subtle, I prefer to keep the filler,” she says. The idea is that listeners are more likely to forgive a wordy speaker than a bad cut. 

It’s also important to consider the context. If it’s an off-the-cuff conversation, Isabel would only cut “excessive fillers that don’t add to the message.” When editing a narrative script, though, she’ll cut out as many of the unscripted filler words as she can. Leaving them “breaks the fourth wall” between the listener and the narrative. 

And when it comes to actually cutting filler words, Isabel prefers removing them manually. However, she will sometimes use an automatic tool if a speaker is clearly overusing certain words. She might also use automatic removal where the speaker is consistently talking at a slow to moderate pace where the fillers don’t bleed into the words around them – i.e., where an automatic removal can make a clean cut. 

(Quick marketing moment here: this is where editing in Descript can make it easy on you in recording — you can forget about trying to avoid filler words, just maybe talk a bit slower, knowing you’ll be able to eradicate them easily.)

Isabel had one last piece of advice, and it’s a good one — one that really applies to every aspect of the craft: “[spend] the extra time at first to simply observe and play, and as you get more comfortable you'll gain confidence and be able to make decisions quicker.” 

About a year ago Robyn Edgar, a sound designer for Pacific Content, wrote a great piece on her filler word philosophy. Essentially, she tries to let the rhythm of the show and the rhythm of the individual speakers guide her decisions on what to cut and what to leave. 

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