Did you know there’s such a thing as “filter words” when writing? I did not, but now thanks to the Tunnel of Rejection that 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, “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.
- 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. God, is it passive. Think of it 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 concealed his precious bone” sounds better. Stephen King has a bit to say about it in On Writing.
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. Litreactor.com explains why in a good clear post about 8 words to seek and destroy in your writing.
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!) telling. Just jump straight to something happening.
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 patriarchy.
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).
I just finished The Terror by Dan Simmons, wherein every character is wondering and considering and thinking and worrying left and right. Filter words galore. It’s still 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. 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 like a putrid zombie Frankenstein, head on over to watch Chuck Wendig Roast some chestnuts. (Be warned if you don’t like cussing, he is super NSFW.)