A few months back, I talked about the beginning of self-editing, and I promised at some point we’d talk about adverbs and filter words. Today’s that day.
One of the things that sets your writing apart is the strength of your writing – your ability to hook your readers with your story and make them identify with your character. The best way to do that is to show the story rather than telling it.
Two things stand in the way of “show, don’t tell”: adverbs and filter words.
Those pesky –ly words that work their way merrily into our sentences as we happily write on toward “the end.” Early in my journey (which wasn’t that long ago, actually), I heard someone say “an editor can tell how new an author is by counting the adverbs.”
We love them, but most of the time they aren’t necessary. Why?
Because they weaken our writing.
Example: Her eyes danced gaily.
First, it’s a cliché. Second, it doesn’t really show you much, either about the character with the dancing eyes or the person who saw them.
How about this instead? Her eyes snapped and sparkled in shared humor. Or What did she find so funny in that remark? Was she laughing at him?
Adverbs get in the way of deep point-of-view, of letting your characters connect with each other, and of connecting the reader to the story.
Of course, you can use them if there’s no other way around it. Just don’t use them all the time.
“Filters are words or phrases you tack onto the start of a sentence that show the world as it is filtered through the main character’s eyes.” Susan Dennard of Pub(lishing) Crawl.
There’s a list: felt, saw, heard, watched, realized …
Example: Garrett watched Trixie walk toward him, teetering on her high heels.
Why not: Trixie walked toward him, teetering on her high heels.
The whole reason for point of view is putting your reader into your character’s head, letting them see what your character sees. Filter words weaken your writing because they weaken the emotion or the action – they remind the reader they aren’t Garrett. That they’re watching Garrett watch Trixie.
My crutch filter? tried to or tried not to.
Garrett tried not to laugh at Trixie’s sparkly spandex outfit.
Okay, so we’re giving Garrett the benefit of the doubt, and we’re trying to make making him the nice guy. But, honestly? If he tried not to laugh – he laughed. He can hide it behind his hand. He can act like he’s coughing to hide the derisive snort. He can stare at his feet and regain his composure. He do any number of things.
But if he’s trying not to laugh – he’s laughing. If he’s trying to laugh – he’s doing something other than laughing. And it’s stronger writing if you can show what he’s doing instead.
I know all of this is a basic skill, but sometimes it pays to exercise the basic muscles.
Happy Thanksgiving. Four whole days to read!