Are These Filter Words Weakening Your Fiction?

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Woman with big glasses

After taking several weeks away from the first draft of my novel, I decided to jump back in.

I expected to find all sorts of problems with the story: inconsistencies in the plot, lack of transitions, poor characterization—the works. But what began to stick out at me the most was something to which I’d given little thought in writing the first draft.

Filter words.

What Are Filter Words?

Actually, I didn’t even know these insidious creatures had a name until I started combing the internet for info.

Filter words are those that unnecessarily filter the reader’s experience through a character’s point of view. Dark Angel’s Blog says:

“Filtering” is when you place a character between the detail you want to present and the reader. The term was started by Janet Burroway in her book On Writing.

In terms of examples, Let the Words Flow says to watch out for:

  • to see
  • to hear
  • to think
  • to touch
  • to wonder
  • to realize
  • to watch
  • to look
  • to seem
  • to feel (or feel like)
  • can
  • to decide
  • to sound (or sound like)

[Note: A reader asked me to add 'to know' to this list, as well.]

I’m being honest when I say my manuscript is filled with these words, and the majority of them need to be edited out.

What Do Filter Words Look Like?

Let’s imagine a character in your novel is walking down a street during peak hour.

You might, for example, write:

Sarah felt a sinking feeling as she realized she’d forgotten her purse back at the cafe across the street. She saw cars filing past, their bumpers end-to-end. She heard the impatient honk of horns and wondered how she could quickly cross the busy road before someone took off with her bag. But the traffic seemed impenetrable, and she decided to run to the intersection at the end of the block.

Eliminating the bolded words removes the filters that distances us, the readers, from this character’s experience:

Sarah’s stomach sank. Her purse—she’d forgotten it back at the cafe across the street. Cars filed past, their bumpers end-to-end. Horns honked impatiently. Could she make it across the road before someone took off with her bag? She ran past the impenetrable stream of traffic, toward the intersection at the end of the block.

Are Filter Words Ever Acceptable?

Of course, there are usually exceptions to every rule.

Just because filter words tend to be weak doesn’t mean they never have a place in our writing. Sometimes they are helpful and even necessary.

Susan Dennard of Let the Words Flow writes that we should use filter words when they are critical to the meaning of the sentence.

If there’s no better way to phrase something than to use a filter word, then it’s probably okay to do so.

Want to Know More?

Do read these other helpful articles on filter words and more great writing tips:

Have you ever noticed filter words creeping into your first drafts? How do you know when to keep a filter word, and when to eliminate it?

{ 39 comments }

Cindy Bidar January 13, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Wow, I never knew there was a name for this – or even really that it existed. Need to read back over all my stuff now and see where I can tighten it up. Thanks!

V.Furnas @ www.life4mebyme.com January 13, 2011 at 3:52 pm

I have been fighting this monster in my fiction and did not realize it had a name. Slaying will be much easier. Thank you!

fOIS In The City January 13, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style go over this habit … it also results in many “ing” words.

If I may share a method I use when I am editing. As you begin to see the words you use too much, repeat and repeat throughout the draft write them down.

I have a chub book in which I have a glossary of dozens of words and phrases I am likely to fall back on when I get lazy or forgetfull. Use word find and delete or replace them.

Good series of writing advice and a great post :) Thanks.

Suzannah January 13, 2011 at 9:30 pm

I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t actually read “The Elements of Style,” even though everyone cites it when they’re discussing grammar. I’m living in a very small and isolated town in rural Australia where books are difficult to come by and shipping is expensive. I really should do it, though. Thanks for the reminder!

Mayra January 18, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Lucky for you, it’s online! http://bartleby.com/141/

Suzannah January 18, 2011 at 7:50 pm

Hey, thanks! I had no idea. I’ll read it ASAP :)

Rivka January 13, 2011 at 7:32 pm

Does it make any difference if the story is being told in first person or third?

Suzannah January 13, 2011 at 9:33 pm

I don’t think it really matters one way or another, Rivka. If you’re writing in first person, you’d be more likely to unconsciously use these filters (I saw the cars pass by; I felt the sun warm my face, etc.) But again, I would simply use the self-test given above: is the filter word critical to the meaning, or does it improve the quality of the sentence? If not, I’d try to work around it. For example, instead of saying, “I felt the sun warm my face,” you could say, “The sun warmed my face.”

Sheila Redling January 13, 2011 at 7:43 pm

What a great post! I too never knew those insidious weakeners had a name. I had just finished chopping a chapter to bits before I read this and realized that many of my cuts were filters. Know thy enemy! Thanks!

Thewriterstuff January 13, 2011 at 10:40 pm

After reading this post I “ran” to my manuscript. Low and behold in the very first page I found filter words. I love your example because it illustrates very well how to solve this problem. Back to the drawing board!

Syleste Hoskins January 14, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Oh, my goodness! I’m a first-time writer and I didn’t know these were filter words! Thanks so much for the tip!

I love your blog BTW. I subscribed to it a few days ago. Good stuff! I’m learning a lot.

Janiebill January 14, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Excellent advice. Writing straight from the heart can be challenging when readers don’t understand the perspective. Thanks for this.

Diane January 14, 2011 at 7:33 pm

so kill infinitives

Julie Musil January 14, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Boy am I guilty of doing this! I bookmarked this page for future reference. Thanks.

Dawn Brazil January 15, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Great Post!!! I knew some of these words were unacceptable in my manuscript and some I didn’t. I also didn’t know the term for them was “filtering”. Great info here.

Sharon Holly January 15, 2011 at 10:50 pm

short and sweet! thanks for the tip. unfortunately, my first draft is full of these filter words. i will search and destroy.

http://sharonholly.wordpress.com/

Nina Cornett January 16, 2011 at 5:04 pm

This is great. I had a list of “filter” words (though I didn’t know what they were called) that I look for, but this has added a new set. Thanks a lot. I’ll get busy today running my ms through them.

Linda Faulkner January 16, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Excellent advice. I really appreciated the example, showing the PP with the filter words and then rewritten.

Icarus2013 January 17, 2011 at 9:32 am

Great insights about writing.

Julie Long January 17, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Great post! The revised paragraph really puts us in the scene.

Julie Long January 17, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Great post! The revised paragraph really puts us in the scene.

Chris January 17, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Good post. I’ve been made aware of filtering through my characters’ POVs, but never knew there was a name for it! Now that I know, and have a checklist of words/phrases to avoid when possible, my writing should improve. Thanks for a good tip.

Cheers,
Chris

Susie McCray January 17, 2011 at 4:54 pm

This article was very helpful. I guess I’ve got a lot of editting to do in my own work in progress.

Jon January 17, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Double wow! Very insightful. It never occurred to me how words can keep readers from really being involved in the story. Thank you for the post!

Melissa Donovan January 18, 2011 at 12:57 am

Excellent article! I see “filter words” a lot in my work as an editor and writing coach. I’m going to save this article and share the link with some of the writers I know who will benefit from reading it. Thanks!

Ev_bishop January 18, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Great post–so practical and helpful! I will definitely be recommending it to other writer friends and editing clients.

Thanks,
Ev

April B January 18, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Great advice. I’ve never heard of a filter word. I bet I use them all the time. Yikes!

Luciano Tsiros January 20, 2011 at 3:05 am

Thanks for this post. I will use this advice and report back…

Charlotte January 25, 2011 at 4:12 am

I’ve also heard this called the “filtering consciousness” and it is something I have to really watch out for, in all my writing. After I finished the first draft of my first novel, there was something not quite right with the voice and I couldn’t figure it out, until an MFA mentor explained this concept to me. Once I edited out the “I saw” and “I heard” and so on, the voice was much stronger.

Mathilda Wheeler January 30, 2011 at 6:10 am

This is a great reminder to make our sentences pack a punch. I imagine everyone filters-it’s how we talk. I use a free trial program called “autocrit”‘ which you can google. For short pieces, it catches a lot of weaknesses that come from speaking your thoughts onto the paper.

Sherry Soule February 2, 2011 at 12:41 am

Wonderful post!

Leanne February 5, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Excellent article! I make this mistake all the time. It is amazing how much losing those filter words improves the story. Thanks!

lux pro thermostats February 14, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Filter words are those that unnecessarily filter the reader’s experience through a character’s point of view. Is your work-in-progress …

søgemaskineoptimering February 23, 2011 at 5:38 pm

After taking several weeks away from the first draft of my novel, I decided to jump back in. I expected to find all sorts of problems with the story: …

james March 2, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Sarah felt a sinking feeling should be in this sentence. It shows the readers how Sarah feels.

Gina Blechman March 5, 2011 at 11:27 pm

thank you for this blog. I’ve found so many of these evil creatures in editing my own WIP, but I never realized that they had a name. I’m definately going to put the filter words in my search bar and make sure that I have filtered out as many as necessary.

<3 Gina Blechman

Daniel Van Der Werken November 7, 2011 at 8:19 am

Reading this, I felt as if you were writing directly to me. I realized that I often use filter words myself. I wondered if perhaps, I could learn to stop using them. I know I may be hopeless.

Thanks for uawdul the blog entry!

Laurel Lamperd November 25, 2011 at 1:33 pm

thank you so much for this article. I’ve read many how to write books and articles and not one mentioned Filters. I realize now that I had been trying to remove them from my writing. Your article will help me enormously.

Irene December 9, 2011 at 3:06 am

This is very helpful. The piece you edited was an eye-opener. Thanks for doing such a great job. Now I can identify the filters and improve my WIP.

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