And why you should avoid them
What are filter words?
Filter words are excess words that put a barrier (filter) between the reader and what a character is experiencing. They do this by placing the character in the central spotlight, instead of the experience.
Filter words work against the widely accepted writing technique of ‘show, don’t tell’, as they explain what’s happening, instead of letting the reader interpret meaning for themselves.
What do filter words looks like?
Generally filter words relate to the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch.
So they include sensory verbs such as: saw, look, see, hear, heard, listen, taste, smell, felt, feel.
But filter words also relate to thought processes.
So they also include verbs such as: realised, knew, remembered, decided, noted.
Why is it important to remove the barrier in writing?
Readers are vicarious creatures. They like to imagine themselves experiencing the character’s actions or emotions themselves. They want to walk in the character’s shoes, lose themselves in their story and immerse themselves in all the feels. They want to be the character.
Now, think of a filter word as some jerk stepping in front of you as you’re about to witness your best friend cross the finish line of a triathlon. Suddenly, you’re missing the final seconds, the crucial moment you’ve been waiting for. The crowd gasps. The jerk in front of you turns and says, ‘Wow, I just saw that girl win! That felt so inspiring. I heard her cry out, almost stumble.’ (Notice all the filter words?) But you’re not impressed. You missed out on experiencing the whole emotional scene for yourself: your friend pushing themselves through exhaustion, their flushed face filled with determination, how close the person behind them was to beating them over the line. Your heart didn’t get to jolt when she stumbled. You didn’t get to embrace the joy of the final moment. The thrill of the experience was snatched away … and filtered.
This is what happens when a character stands in the way of the story and tells the reader (reports) what’s happening, instead of letting them interpret and experience things for themselves. By not giving the reader direct access to the action, thoughts or emotions on the page, you distance them and risk losing their interest.
Reporting is kind of disrespectfulBy reporting the action with filter words, you’re not only distancing the reader, but you’re telling them you don’t trust them enough to read between the lines and understand the message. On another level, filter words cause redundant writing, because logically, if an action or emotion is being reported, it’s obvious the character is experiencing it – since it’s their point of view – so we know they’re experiencing it. Why then would you tell us? It’s a tad insulting.
Why do so many people use filter words?
Because it’s easier to write ‘I feel sad’ than ‘My limbs are dragging today. It’s as if life has buried the only crumb of joy I had left in this hateful, despicable world.’ A bit over the top, but you get it.
Here’s a longer example containing filter words, then the same passage with them removed:
I heard Tina swear as she approached the air conditioner for the third time, and I stared as she banged on the front of it. I too felt annoyed that it remained off. I saw her mouth tighten as she turned to glare at me, and knew she thought the heat was my fault. It was now she spotted the remote control, half hidden under the couch. I watched as she grabbed it and pointed it at the air conditioner, furiously pressing buttons. The old contraption cranked to life, and I could smell the dank, mildewy stink of a neglected appliance. I decided I preferred it off.
Tina swore as she approached the air conditioner for the third time and banged on the front. The damned thing remained off. She turned and glared at me, mouth tight, as if the heat was my fault. It was now she spotted the remote control, half hidden under the couch. She grabbed it and pointed it at the air conditioner, stabbing at the buttons. The old contraption cranked to life, emitting the dank, mildewy stink of a neglected appliance. Ugh. Maybe we were better off sweating.
Filter words also cause wordiness
Sometimes, especially during tense or emotional scenes, you might need short, sharp sentences to up the pace. If you’re using filter words, they’re going to clog up your narrative without adding anything to the scene.
Here are some examples of how to simplify prose for a tighter read.
Fix: An old run-down barn sits on the other side of the fence.
Filter: She felt light-headed and gripped the door frame.
Fix: Light-headed, she gripped the door frame.
Filter: He heard a gun shot in the night.
Fix: A gunshot shattered the night.
Filter: I realised it was happening.
Fix: It was happening.
Filter: I knew this would be dangerous.
Fix: This was dangerous.
Filter: I remember her telling me.
Fix: She had told me.
Some final tips:
- Look for pronouns followed by sensory verbs. Pronouns are often a flag for filter words. Check if the verb that follows I, he, she, they or it is a sensory-related word. I saw, she heard, they felt. Bingo! There’s your filter.
- Trust the reader. Consider whether you’re explaining what your character is thinking or doing, or whether the surrounding text can show the reader what’s happening instead. You don’t have to spoon feed the reader. Let them breathe.
- A few filter words are okay. There’s always going to be an exception where a filter word is needed for clarity, or where it’s necessary to help your prose flow. One here or there isn’t going to ruin your whole manuscript, but if you’re a serial offender, rein those babies in.