Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Dealbreakers: Filtering

I’ve got a number of deal-breakers for me when I’m reading slush or, when I’m writing my dreaded “dear author” letters for my clients – these issues seem to crop up the most often and make me sigh. A lot. First up on my list is filtering. First-pass edits that I do usually end up with loads of red ink or tabbed comments that just state “filtering”. Some of my authors are so allergic to these comments they’ve gone to great lengths to correct their behaviour. This pleases me greatly.

Here’s an example.
She thought that the bird was cute. vs. The bird was cute.

See what happens here? (Okay, granted, this was an extremely simple example.) You’ve just gone and cut out a pile of words.

Your automatic red flag for when you’re busy with your first round of self-edits (and all awesome authors should learn to be awesome self-editors) is to look out for anything that has a personal pronoun or proper noun followed by a verb.

So, these include constructions such as she thought, he felt, I was thinking, Tom heard. Look out for “that” as well. My rule here is if you can read the sentence (and have it make sense) without “that” in it then you can lose the word.

[insert huge big disclaimer here]

That’s not to say that all sentences containing filtering are wrong, per se. But I advise always that less is more when it comes to words that don’t contribute in any meaningful way. Especially if it's a construction you're in the habit of using. We all have quirks. Learn what yours are.

Why is filtering bad? Besides the fact that you’re filling your sentences with words that don’t contribute to the story, the filtering also creates a sense of distance from the meat and bones of your narrative. Think of it as clutter. This is especially a problem if you’re writing a short story that has to conform to a strict word count. By cutting back on filtering, it is possible to give your text more drive and give it a greater sense of immediacy.

Another tip: look out for too many adjectives or adverbs that end with the suffix “-ly”. Chances are good that you don’t need them. Instead of saying that someone cried piteously or was gesticulating furiously, see where you can show a piteous state or the ferocity of their movements. Perhaps a person’s voice trembles when they speak, or their shoulders are hunched. Perhaps their eyes are shining with tears or their movements are sharp. While all pesky adjectives and adverbs ending in “-ly” aren’t necessarily wrong, they’re best described as salt to your text – to be used sparingly lest you spoil the soup.

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Bio: After surviving a decade in the trenches of newspaper publishing, where she fought against the abuse of the English language, Nerine Dorman is now a freelance editor and designer who is passionate about words that not only sound good, but look damned good too. She’s also written a few books. You can stalk her on Twitter or, even better, support her authorly aspirations via Patreon. If you’re feeling particularly brave, and would like to inquire about her editing rates, you can email her at 

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