Mistakes in the Slushpile: Filter Verbs

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Unreliable Narrators for a podcast. They asked some in depth questions: what’s a typical day in the life of a literary agent, advice for writers, book recommendations etc. so be sure to check it out to hear my answers.

One of the questions I continued to think about the next day. They were curious to know what is the most common mistake I see in the slushpile. This is difficult to answer as the slushpile is constantly morphing and changing, and I didn’t want to give the usual answer that writers hear all the time like:

  • query is misaddressed or agent’s name is misspelled
  • it’s the wrong genre for that particular agent
  • spelling/grammar errors in query
  • prologue or slow opening line
  • word count is too high or too low

(These are incredibly common.)

What I settled on was the overall truth that… most writers query too soon. They submit their work before it has been fully polished. And a major aspect of that polish is getting rid of the words that cause distance between the narrator and the reader, also known as filter language.

Filter language is typically those pesky overused verbs that inexperienced writers use to inform the reader what the protagonist is experiencing, i.e. “I saw” or “he felt” or “she knew” (hear, think, hope, touch, realize, wonder, look, seem etc.). These verbs are largely unnecessary as we the reader are experiencing the story through the eyes of the character, thus we don’t need to be told the character is seeing something, we should simply see it, e.g. “She saw his dark cape swoosh.” vs “His dark cape swooshed.” A fully polished manuscript will have eliminated many if not all of these filters, bringing the reader closer to the story thus strengthening the odds it will catch their interest. As the most important aspect in a submission is catching the attention of the agent (just as the final product must catch the attention of the potential reader) you can imagine just how important the removal of filter verbs is.

For those of you scrambling to hit search all in your document right now, I say great, but take a moment to consider perhaps this manuscript that you wrote full of filter verbs isn’t the one. When I said writers submit their work too soon, I meant they as a creative entity, not just that single manuscript. You are an apprentice, your first completed novel gets you into the mail room at the bottom floor. Don’t set such high expectations of yourself that you will be the CEO in a year. This will only serve to discourage, as you will be faced with certain rejection and disappointment. Keep growing, evolving, studying, and learning your craft. So when you read a post like this you won’t be scrambling, rather nodding along (hopefully not too smugly). At that point, you are likely ready to submit. And I will be ready to read when you are.

Write on.


  • Jeff M

    June 14, 2017 at 12:29 pm Reply

    As any true writer know, you must first learn the rules in order to break them. Solid post Mary!

    • Mary C. Moore

      June 14, 2017 at 12:47 pm Reply

      My favorite quote!

  • Rob bienke

    June 13, 2017 at 2:43 am Reply

    I’m all over your blogs today. It’s because I like to address the elephant in the room nobody is considering. Even as cliche as that was its still widely used. Thus my point. I read so many novels I can use a flush in my cortex. It’s this ridiculous idea that a novel has to be a certain way in order to be considered. And oh my that annoys me. Read Anything by Tom Clancy, rr Martin, 50 shades of grey, the hunger games, sword of truth, dan brown novels whoever-whatever. They all destroy this impossible worry that’s been placed on new authors lately. That using too many adverbs sucks. Show not tell. Or recreating vampires has been done. Never start with waking from a dream, looking in mirror, in middle of a shitstorm. Whatever. Yet time and time again, there they are on the best sellers list. They have 300k words, they have overuse of quickly, they have your typical hero is a villain in the end. If we keep placing these limits these expectations we will waste so much time correcting our novel, we might as well let Literary Agents publish best sellers. Which are very few btw. So why the aggravation when you can walk into any bookstore, pick up a book and see all the things we are not supposed to do. I mean if conundrum and contradiction were not cousins I would how does this work? Simple truth is simple. Writers write. Editors edit. Agents can find ways to bring a good story to great with a great editor. But To place these rules on new authors only to see their idols are breaking them spells contradiction. So maybe we can agree that there are no rules. That querying even, is just laziness as much as is using adverbs? It’s like “Tor” publication (biggest in industry) said, it’s impossible to judge a query, you may just have a great story.” Of course some are not worth it and only beat you down. Anyway, other than fine details and variables I have not mentioned the gist is there; ” Nobody knows enough to say my novel or another’s isn’t good enough.” Maybe it’s the fact we haven’t found the right person (agent) to bring it to the “polish” publishers expect. I mean honestly how many books have we seen from agents that top the charts? My advice to authors reading this if it gets posted is don’t be discouraged, stay positive and write the story how you want to write it. Edit each chapter as best you can. Common errors not stipulations. Write as big or as little. If you’re satisfied start submitting and never wait for one agent. They are too busy and stressed. And you’re life is passing. By. To wait 4-8months for every response is insane. Nobody has that kind of time. Tomorrow may not come. Just don’t go to you’re grave full. Die empty. But while you’re alive never stop. Good luck to everyone.

    • Mary C. Moore

      June 13, 2017 at 1:43 pm Reply

      You may have missed the point. Suggestions on my blog are from my experience as an industry professional. There are no hard and fast rules on how to write, but there is helpful advice on how to polish your writing in order to catch a reader’s attention (be it an agent, an editor, a bookstore book buyer, or the end customer).

      And note, Tor is not the biggest publisher by any stretch. They are an imprint of Macmillan which is a smaller publisher than Harper Collins and Penguin Random House.

      But agreed, you do you.

    • Fallon DeMornay

      June 14, 2017 at 5:36 am Reply

      This convoluted comment goes to show that while everyone can write, not everyone can write.

  • Susan Holt Simpson

    May 22, 2017 at 11:02 am Reply

    Great article, great advice! Thank you

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