Filter Words

When you begin the task of editing your manuscript, Filter Words is one item that should be on your list, (especially when writing a first person story.)

What the heck are Filter Words?

Filter words are those extraneous words that filter the action through the character’s point of view. This has the result of “telling” us like a narrator what happens instead of letting us see what happens by showing us instead. Let’s look at a great example I found online.

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.

Eliminate the filter words and this is what happens.

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.

Notice that removing the filter words moves the prose into an active voice. It tightens up the writing and moves the story along at the desirable pace.

When editing, it our goal to remove any unnecessarily filters that add wordiness to the sentence and bog things down.

Here is a list of words to watch out for:

  • know
  • see
  • hear
  • think – thought
  • touch
  • wonder
  • realize
  • watch
  • look
  • seem
  • feel (or feel like)
  • decide
  • sound (or sound like)
  • considered
  • hoped

We all have filter words creep into our writing. This is usually unavoidable for the first draft and not something you should worry too much about. Stressing over filter words on the first draft will stifle your creativity. The time to tackle the little buggers is when you begin the editing process.

When I edit for filter words, I open my list, and take the first word and pop it into the find function. I consider each sentence where the filter word occurs and determine if the sentence can be reworded to tighten it up. I go through the entire list and make sure that any use of one of these words was appropriate.

Are filter words ever desirable?

Yes, of course. Occasionally, filter words are helpful and even necessary for clarity to a scene. For example, your character has a spinal injury after an accident.

Mary felt the tongue depressor scrape across the bottom of her foot.

Here the filter word “felt” indicates Mary hasn’t lost all sensation due to the injury.

See how the sentence changes when I take out the filter word.

The tongue depressor scraped across the bottom of Mary’s foot.

By removing the filter word you lose important information the reader wants to know. Could Mary feel the tongue depressor or not?

The inclusion of filter words should be a considered decision. Use them sparingly and only when including them provides the reader with important details that would otherwise be lost when editing them out.