No Filter in Your Author Toolbox

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2

This old post has been brushed up for this month’s Author Toolbox Blog Hop, hosted and moderated by author Raimey Gallant. Authors at all stages of their writing/publishing journey are welcome to hop in and bring new ideas and tools.

elven siew

Did you know there are such things as “filter words” when writing? I did not as a smol writer but now, thanks to the Tunnel of Everlasting Rejection which was 2017, I do. In the course of a) submitting my manuscripts to RWA contests for judging and b) having my bits chopped off by the Axe of Editing the awesome staff at eXtasy Books wields, I have learned the stuff they teach you in creative writing.

So take writing classes, is the lesson here.

Alternate lesson: If, like me, you don’t have the time or $$ for formal schooling you can pick this up for free by being rejected multiple times and told what’s not working in your writing, then googling the hell out of the right way to do it.

Or you can just read along as I suffer the corrections then research the fixes for my mistakes, and learn from my missteps without going through the rejections yourself. Whichever sounds best to you.

What I have learned NOT to put in my writing

  • Was + Gerund, Am + Gerund, or Is + Gerund.

A gerund is past progressive, which means (form of to be) + verb-ing, and it is also the dreaded Telling. For example, “One second later, Jenny was sprinting away from the monster as fast as she could go”. When you past progressive you are telling the reader what the character is doing, like a narrator, and removing them far, far away from the action. No bueno. The Write Practice calls this specific thing out in their post on words to cut.

no narrating

  • Filter Words

A term started by Janet Burroway in her book On Writing. If your characters are thinking, feeling, worrying, noticing, seeing, or deciding they are filtering what they are experiencing through their own point of view. Which is not the reader’s point of view. Adding an extra step between the reader, and the action. There’s that dreaded Telling again. Write it Sideways has a nice succinct post about filter words and an example of how to kill them.

A short hit-list of those filtering bastards to watch for: decided, hoped, saw, wondered, considered, regarded, worried, felt, knew, heard, smelled, thought, noticed, knew.

  • Passive Voice

When an action is performed on the passive subject of the sentence. “The bone was carried by the dog to his favorite hiding spot” is passive. Yiiikes, is it passive. Think a sentence like sex. If one part of the duo making up the sentence is just lying there, formulating a mental grocery list, while the rest of the sentence has to do all the work it’s not fun for anyone participating. “The dog slyly concealed his precious bone” sounds better. Stephen King has a bit to say about it in On Writing.

  • THAT

Almost always unnecessary. Do a word search on “that” in your manuscript. Pretty much all of them can go, and your sentences will be stronger with their absence. explains why in a good clear post about 8 words to seek and destroy in your writing.

  • Suddenly

Suddenly something happens! By definition and by virtue of the written action it is unexpected and the reader doesn’t need you to emphasize that by sticking in “suddenly” because when you do that you are (all together now, sing our author refrain) telling. Just jump straight to something happening.

Suddenly squirrel
Suddenly, squirrel!
  • Adverbs

Although it kills me to write this, because I LOVE me some adverbs. Why are they so universally reviled? While I don’t belong to the “DEATH TO TEH ADVERBS” camp, I do recognize that using them too much makes your writing weaker than a newborn kitten. Try not to use them with “said” (she said, angrily). Search them out, delete them, and make that sentence stronger. Also sneak a few in, here and there, because Fuck the Adverbiarchy.

Quick caveat: I am more convinced every day that the only real writing advice should be; DON’T DO THE THING (unless you do, in which case, carry on).

  • The Terror by Dan Simmons, wherein every character is wondering and considering and thinking and worrying left and right, is a horror masterpiece with filter words galore. It’s the most action packed book I’ve ever read and I finished all 700 pages of it in two days.
  • J.K. Rowling uses “said”+ adverb ALL THE TIME. Obviously didn’t work out for her, eh?
  • Robin McKinley employs incredible amounts of adverbs, not to mention she’s addicted to “, and” in her sentences. Still my favorite fantasy author.
  • A good story, great characters, and awesome dialogue and you can pretty much get away with anything. Take this, and any other post you read on the same subject, as advice. Follow it when it works, ditch it when it doesn’t.

If you would like to see every old piece of writing advice torn apart, flayed, and reconstructed, head on over to watch Chuck Wendig Roast some chestnuts. (Be warned if you don’t like cussing, he is super NSFW.)



Featured image via & Josh Byers

26 thoughts on “No Filter in Your Author Toolbox

  1. Seriously, a great post, S.E. I absolutely hate the word “that”! And I have trouble with adverbs. Can you tell? And dang, if those thoughts and seems don’t sneak up on me. All best to you!

  2. “Tunnel of everlasting rejection that was 2017.“ I nearly fell out of my chair. I`ve spent a lot of time trying to get rid of all these things from my writing, and then ended up ending a fair amount back in. I think it`s a hard lesson we have to learn and then unlearn a little, just to get our writing to a place that`s a little more natural, or at least that`s what I found for my writing, that the more rules I followed, the more stilted things were sounding.

    1. So true. That should be another warning for new writers: follow all the rules, except don’t, because then it starts reading as obvious that you were following a bunch of rules. There is no good way to win here! Haha. Just a lot of work.

  3. These are all things I pick up and correct when I’m editing. But imagine how much faster (and therefore cheaper) editing would be if the author had already killed all the filter words!

    1. I like to pretend I’m a cool bounty hunter with, like, a bow and arrows. Stalking, hunting and slaying my filter words and repetitive overuses in some deep, murky thicket of words. Yes, it’s very strange, but it makes me feel better about editing. LOL

    1. I’ve found a lot of really useful articles about them and I rely heavily on those while I edit. Good luck!

    1. Eh, if you’re at all unsure feel free to ignore all of it. I like to think of writing advice as a buffet option and we all fill our plates differently.

  4. I was wondering (oops, hehehe) about the adverb. Some authors add them with the precision of a knife’s blade. They deepen the meaning to such a point that they are the perfect addition to any prose. I’ve always admired the ability to do that and on some braver occasions copy their example.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    1. I do love it when an author is able to do that! For all his avowed dislike of adverbs, Stephen King is very good at adding them in the punchiest, unexpected way. I admire that ability too!

  5. Thanks for this list of good reminders! Cutting these things definitely can help keep the excitement in the narrative up. And as you say in your caveat, sometimes these no-nos are what is needed for a particular effect, so maybe a balance of considering whether that filter word is doing an important job or not could help? Thanks for posting and sharing!!

    1. Sometimes it feels like we have to inspect each and every word, individually, to decide whether or not they’re doing the job correctly. At this point I usually take a break from revising, though! Ha

  6. I feel like every new writer needs to read this. One of the most helpful tip I picked up when I first started to write seriously was ditching the filter words. To this day, I have a note in my Editing folder to remember to remove as many of these words as possible: Suddenly, then, if, like, very/really, started to, that, in order to…
    Hopefully I have the strength to do that when it comes to editing. I do enjoy the word “very”. Very much.
    Great post as always!

    1. Thank you! And I hadn’t heard about if, like, or very/really. Although reading them, it makes a lot of sense to leave them out! Now I need to add to my own editing folder (which, to be honest, is a sheet of notepaper tacked above my computer, lol).

  7. That is a tough one for me. I agree that a ton of instances can be deleted. But I write in first person, which seems to add to the use of ‘that’ in my novels. (I notice when I write in 3rd person I don’t use the word ‘that’ as much) I have a list of words I overuse. In my first round of self-editing, I highlight them all and see how many I can eliminate. It’s a challenge – that’s for sure (Extra that added just for fun)

    1. Haha, yes! There are a few words I seem to be welded to and I have to search and destroy the little boogers every time.

    1. It really is intriguing! I’ll read an advice article and then it seems like the next book I pick up ignores everything about that article entirely, haha.

  8. Great tips 🙂 I just finished a book which used ‘felt’ so often it ruined the immersion, which was a shame as the story had a lot of potential!
    It’s strange how in some stories I notice the filter words, like the adverbs in Good Omens, but in others, like Harry Potter, I didn’t! You really can get away with it if the audience likes the story enough 🙂

    PS: I adore the squirrel gif 😀

    1. I sat and laughed at the squirrel gif for a good five minutes. Finding fun gifs is the best part of writing a post, if I’m honest.

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