Friday, February 5, 2016

Word Filtering and Muscular Verbs

by Jean Henry Mead

I first learned about word filtering when I sold one of my previously published books to a small press. My manuscript returned with the notation: "I found 27 'she knew', 14 'he realized,' and 12 'they noticed.' You need to rewrite."

I looked through several bestselling novels and found quite a few 'she knew,' 'realized' and 'noticed.' Maybe not as many as in my book, but what's the big deal? The deal, my editor explained, is that those words weaken a sentence. I wondered why the book was published in the first place and why I couldn't leave in just a few 'she knew' or "he realized'?

Gritting my teeth I went to work replacing all the words in question, grudgingly admitting that my prose had improved. Instead of writing: She knew that Billy was lying, I replaced the sentence with: Billy's downcast eyes told her he was lying. And, She noticed a large man entering her room was rewritten as: A wide shadow fell across her bed when someone entered the room. Not Pulitizer-winning phrasing, but better.

I then addressed passive versus active verbs. Muscular verbs are necessary to strengthen a sentence and weak verbs need to be replaced. A. B. Guthrie, Jr. once told me during an interview that: "The adjective is the enemy of the noun, and the adverb is the enemy of damn near everything else. The guts of the language are nouns and verbs, and writers use too many descriptive words."


1 comment:

Bill Kirton said...

It's infuriating when these things are pointed out to us, isn't it, Jean? On the other hand, like you, I find it mostly improves my writing. There's a limit, though. I've had editorial suggestions just like this which have been straight out of the 'How to do Creative Writing for Dummies' song book - in other words, suggestions coming from people incapable of doing it themselves but adept at nit-picking the work of others.