One of the great assets of belonging to a writing chapter is the expertise every writer brings to the table. I’m also very fortunate to have been invited to participate with a critique group as part of our monthly meeting.
Although our genres are varied, I look forward to the red slashing of the editing pen from the opinions of my fellow writers. It’s amazing to me how one piece of work can be returned with five different opinions proving that every editor you send your work to will also have their subjective opinion. But all the rewrites and editing helps our baby become more presentable.
And of course, every time I get critiqued, I learn something. Maybe I missed this along the way, but I was not familiar with the term filtering. So I looked it up and wanted to share a few things I found.
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)
· to decide
· to sound (or sound like)
· to know
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.
Filtering words are generally words that you add to a sentence when you are trying to describe something that your character is experiencing or thinking. These can be sense words like feel, taste, see, hear, and smell, or variations thereof. But they can also be words like think, seem, and remember.
Writers don’t necessarily have to avoid these words, but they should be aware of the effect that they have on your prose. Rather than describing a sensation outright, you are distancing your narrator (and reader) from the sense that you are describing.
More Examples of Filtering
- I heard a noise in the hallway.
- She felt embarrassed when she tripped.
- I saw a light bouncing through the trees.
- I tasted the sour tang of raspberries bursting on my tongue.
- He smelled his teammate’s BO wafting through the locker room.
- She remembered dancing at his wedding.
- I think people should be kinder to one another.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: I heard a noise in the hallway.
- DESCRIBE THE SOUND: Heels tapped a staccato rhythm in the hallway.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: She felt embarrassed after she tripped.
- DESCRIBE WHAT THE FEELING LOOKS LIKE: Her cheeks flushed and her shoulders hunched after she tripped.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: I saw a light bouncing through the trees.
- DESCRIBE THE SIGHT: A light bounced through the trees.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: I tasted the sour tang of raspberries bursting on my tongue.
- DESCRIBE THE TASTE: The sour tang of raspberries burst on my tongue.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: He smelled his teammate’s BO wafting through the locker room.
- DESCRIBE THE SMELL: His teammate’s BO wafted through the locker room.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: She remembered dancing at his wedding.
- DESCRIBE THE MEMORY: She had danced at his wedding.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: I think people should be kinder to one another.
- DESCRIBE THE THOUGHT: People should be kinder to one another.
See what a difference it makes when you get rid of the filter? It’s simply not necessary to use them. By ditching them, you avoid “telling,” your voice is more active, and your pacing is helped along.
The above list is not comprehensive as there are many examples of filtering words. The idea is to be aware of the concept so that you can recognize instances of it happening in your work. Be aware of where you want to place the energy and power in your sentences. Let your observations flow through your characters with immediacy.
No matter who your narrator is, they're the person the reader sees the novel through. A tight first person, and omniscient third, everything is filtered through their eyes. Sometimes this filter is invisible and the reader doesn't feel any distance between them and the point of view (POV) character. Other times the filters are obvious and the reader feels the wall between them and the characters. One looks through the eyes of the POV, the other looks at the POV.
So, what exactly is filtering?
Words that distance the reader from the POV character.
Filter words remind the reader they're reading, explain things that are obvious, and often lead a writer into telling or crafting passive sentences.