Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Word Filtering and Muscular Verbs

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 knews,' 14 'he realized,' and 12 'they noticed.' You need to rewrite."

I looked through several bestselling novels and found quite a few 'she knews,' 'realizes' and 'notices.' 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. Then how did the book get published in the first place? I wondered. And why couldn't I leave in a few 'she knews' or "he realized'?

Gritting my teeth I went to work replacing all the undesireable words, grudglingly 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. Or, 'She noticed a large man entering her room' was rewritten: A wide shadow fell across her bed as someone entered the room.

Muscular verbs are necessary to strengthen a sentence and weak verbs need to be replaced. Pulitzer winner A. B. Gutrhie, 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."


Jean Henry Mead
Jean Henry Mead's Web Page
Murderous Musings
Escape, a Wyoming Historical Novel


  1. Well said. Couldn't have said it any better. Good examples of better re-writing also. I used to fight my editor when she insisted I get rid of all the frilly adjectives and adverbs, but I finally realized she was right. The power in good prose lies with strong impact nouns and verbs.

  2. Thanks, Marvin. Fortunately, my journalistic training taught me to leave out unnecessary words, but nothing was ever said about filtering. :-)

  3. Great post - I'm a mega fan of muscular verbs...AND active voice. Teaching media writing classes this semester, and we just discussed the importance of strong nouns and verbs to carry a sentence and connect with the reader.

  4. Nice examples. And this is definitely something to look for in your manuscript as you edit. It can make a big difference, not just in strengthening your writing, but in whether an agent or editor gives you a second look.

  5. This is a most informative blog and I opened up my doc files to discover many instances where I made that mistake, most notably with my first effort. I have a GED but left school after tenth grade so i will keep returning to learn all i can. At 57, I'm going to prove that you can teach an old dog.
    thanks for the information

  6. Elliot, Parris Afton Bonds, a best-selling writer, once told me that "Talent is cheap. The difference between a professional and an amateur writer is persistence." Believe in yourself and never give up. And study the authors' styles that you enjoy reading. You're never too old to succeed as a writer. I have a 93-year-old friend who began writing at 75 and is still publishing. My "Advice to Fledgling Writers" blog is located on my website: JeanHenryMead.com (URL too long for this post) and contains good pointers from various well-known authors. Best of luck with your work!

    Thank you, Chick and Helen, for the kind words.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.