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?

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