Filter Words

This was a post I wrote back on Let the Words Flow, and I’ve taken it and updated it a bit. Why? Because it’s still a lesson I have to constantly keep in the front of my mind when writing—and even more so, when editing.

That lesson is to keep the number of “filter words” in my manuscript to a minimum—especially when my story is in first person. In first person, these filter words really crop up and really affect your storytelling.

Heck, filter words are the reason I can’t enjoy some books—why I can’t always connect with the main character, why I can’t feel the world he/she lives in, and why I might not feel an emotional response to the story.

So what the heck are filter words? And is there some more official term for them? As to the latter question, I have no idea. As to the former…

Filters are words or phrases you tack onto the start of sentence that show the world as it is filtered through the main character’s eyes.

(with filter phrase) I see the moon rise overhead.
(without filter phrase) The moon rises overhead.

(with filter phrase) I feel sad.
(without filter phrase) I am sad.

(with filter phrase) I hear a howl from the hall—it sounds like Emily is in trouble!
(without filter phrase) A howl comes from the hall—Emily! She’s in trouble!

(with filter phrase)  I can feel the roughness of the canvas beneath my fingers, and it reminds me of Mom’s jacket.
(without filter phrase)  The canvas is rough beneath my fingers—just like Mom’s jacket.

(with filter phrase) He looks furious with his eyes bulging and lips pressed thin.
(without filter phrase)  His eyes bulge and his lips press thin. He’s furious.

Do you see the difference?  Do you feel the difference?

Filter words crop up left and right in my first drafts—it’s so natural to want to include them. But as easy as they are to insert, they’re even easier to catch and edit out! One read through of your novel, and you can slash them all.

Now keep in mind, that sometimes you do want a filter word. Sometimes you do need that distance—you need to know that the character “sees” or “hears” or “wonders”.

I watch the kids play basketball. (The filter word here is important to the meaning of the sentence!)

I hear the radio, but its noise doesn’t process in my mind. (Again, the filter is critical for meaning.)

I lie in my bed, and I wonder why…  Why would anyone want to do that to such a nice person? (Not critical, but it adds a nice layer and visual.)

I could feel the cold draft from the window. This window was the broken one. (This is part of the story—we need to know the MC is able to feel in this situation.)

Here’s a list of filter words for you 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)
  • to notice
  • to be able to
  • to note
  • to experience

I’m pretty sure I put “to see”, “to realize”, and “to feel” about TEN THOUSAND TIMES in each of my first drafts. And the number of times I use some form of “can” is downright uncountable. My point is: we all do it, and we can also all fix it. 😉

What about you? Do you have any filters to add to my list?  Have you ever found these in your own books — or how about a book on shelves?

     

32 Responses to Filter Words

  1. Amie Kaufman
    Amie Kaufman May 21 2012 at 7:57 am #

    Aaaaaaaaah, this one is such a killer for me. I am finally, finally learning to catch myself (a bit), mostly because of all the pain of cutting things out again. My characters realize so much stuff it’s a wonder they’re not running the universe by now. They also see a helluva lot of stuff happen. You’d swear I was dealing with Schrodinger’s cat — if they don’t see it, it doesn’t happen…

  2. Chemist Ken May 21 2012 at 9:43 am #

    I am also trying to limit my filter words, possibly from having read your previous post on the subject. 🙂 Even so, I often find I don’t mind them when I’m reading someone else’s story. I guess it depends on the author’s style. The Harry Potter books were loaded with filter words, yet that never bothered me. Maybe because Rowling intentionally wrote from a distant POV throughout most of the series.

  3. AVJohnson May 21 2012 at 9:44 am #

    Wow, excellent post. This is practical and helpful, and in my case, timely. I’m in a rewrite now and this is a problem for me. Didn’t know it until I read your post though, ha. Thanks!

  4. ellen levy-sarnoff May 21 2012 at 10:25 am #

    Dear Susan~ This is a great and timely post –esp for me, about to do my final, final edit of my upcoming self-pubbed novel, DEWITCHED: The Untold Story of the Evil Queen, hopefully coming out this week. BTW, your cover for Something Strange and Deadly is absolutely stunning! You and your fellow PC writers are a wonderful inspiration for us all. Thank you~ els

  5. Erica O'Rourke May 21 2012 at 10:33 am #

    *hangs head in shame* *readies delete key* *eats all the cookies to combat shame*

  6. Sarah Brand May 21 2012 at 11:07 am #

    Filter words might also be necessary every now and then in third person to make it clear that the point of view hasn’t changed. For instance, if character A is watching character B mull over something A has said, just writing “B considered this” might make some people think the POV has shifted to B. Writing “B seemed to consider this” makes it clear that we’re still in A’s head.

  7. Marie Lu
    Marie Lu May 21 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    Oh man, I am guilty of this ALLLLL the time. This list is going straight into my bookmarks–something I’ll definitely be checking in my manuscripts from now on! Awesome post, Sooz!

  8. Chris May 21 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    Thanks for the tip! Now I’m worried what I’m going to find when I go back and read my current WIP 0_O

  9. Rowenna May 21 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    Great post! I think filter words are so insidious because they make it in there without the writer realizing. Clearly, sometimes we want to use those words–we want to highlight that the character saw, remembered, or felt something, and it’s the experience of seeing, feeling, or remembering that’s important to point out. And POV definitely affects how and when to use them as PPs have said–for clarity, for style. But usually they just trickle in there and create distance between the reader and the character’s experience–not as a choice, but just a writing tic. When editing, I like to ask myself, “Did I *mean* to express this that way? Or did I just blunder into it?”

  10. JoSVolpe May 21 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    Great post, Susan. No wonder your drafts are so clean 🙂

  11. Hwa Sun May 21 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    Wow. Thank you! I never thought about filter words, but they definitely do seem to make a difference. I’m going to have to be on the look out for those now…

  12. ellen levy-sarnoff May 21 2012 at 10:17 pm #

    Holy Cow! I’ve gone through my manuscript…. I was shocked and appalled by the number of times I used these filters. Susan, you are a book-saver as I was about to send the manuscript off to my print formatter. Thank you again for this great and timely post!

  13. Meredith Anderson May 23 2012 at 9:50 am #

    I get the publishing crawl blog post in my email every morning. When I woke up to a post about filter words, I KNEW you’d written it, Sooz! I needed this post as a reminder. I’ve been editing my story and I keep trying to watch for my filter words, but I keep doing it anyway. It’s a hard habit to throw off, but I’m working on it! I think I’m going to write these fancily on pretty paper and post them on the wall above my desk. That way I’ll see them and there’s no way I CAN forget!

  14. Claire M. Caterer May 30 2012 at 8:48 am #

    I’m so guilty of this! I caught it in my last book in one of the very last drafts before it went to the copy editor. Excellent post. Here’s another thing I’ve seen in mss that I’ve copyedited: “He called my name, but I didn’t hear him.” Unless there’s some further explanation there–he shook her shoulder and said, “Hey, I called your name! Didn’t you hear me?”– the sentence makes no sense. If you’re strictly in 1st person, the writer can’t reveal things the narrator doesn’t know or isn’t aware of.

  15. Avery Frost Jun 7 2012 at 12:12 pm #

    I made a reference to this post and quoted it in my blog–I hope that’s okay! This lesson totally blew my mind when I first read it. It’s not a lesson I often hear, and it was great to see it in such an easy-to-understand form. Thank you for posting 🙂

  16. Darin Kennedy Aug 9 2012 at 3:28 pm #

    Great article. Plan to implement this. Also to start/begin is one of my pet peeves. Don’t “He started walking toward me.” Just, “He walked toward me.”

  17. Sherry Soule Sep 8 2012 at 7:50 pm #

    Great post. Thanks for sharing. 😀

    But I somewhat disagree. I think whenever possible remove all filler or “telling” words. It makes for stronger writing, IMHO. For example, I’ll rewrite your sample sentences into SHOWING and you guys can tell me if you think they are more vital and have a deeper point of view:

    1) As I passed the park, four kids were playing basketball. OR I glanced at the kids playing basketball in the park.

    2) The radio was tuned to an oldies station, but its noise didn’t process in my mind. OR I paid no attention to the radio’s melodious sounds in the background.

    3) Sprawled across my bed, I wonder why Jason was being such an epic jerk to Rachel, who’s normally such a nice person. But I don’t blame her for punching him.

    4) A cold draft creeps like icy fingers across my skin through the broken window. I shiver and zip up my hoodie.

  18. Julie Sep 25 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    Awesome! I printed this out so I can have it on hand.

  19. Renee-Ann Dec 16 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    This is awesome. When reading another site about filter words, it led me here.

    Thank you. 🙂

    • Sooz Dec 16 2012 at 9:18 pm #

      Thanks, Renee-Ann! 😀

      • Renee-Ann Dec 28 2012 at 7:23 pm #

        Sooz, on my blog, I sometimes post links to sites I find helpful. I can post a link to this one, if you like. 🙂

  20. Penny Sidoli Jan 30 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    I agree with Sherry Soule. Eliminating filter words turns fiction into journalism. It goes from art to craft and weakens the writing. If the writer is uncomfortable with “I feel” part of “I feel sad” then go deeper. For example, “I feel sad, and it’s every day I feel this way and I’m sick of it.” Or boldly sculpt with a metaphor in that ‘uncomfortable’ place; e.g., “I feel sad all the time now like my insides have turned into a cello.”

  21. May & KC Frantzen Apr 17 2013 at 9:06 am #

    Thank you Susan!

    What a terrific post, and sooooo needed.

    May the K9 Spy and I write in first dog, and we’ve struggled with this. We just began our edits and this could not be more timely. You’ve explained so well that, YES – we. can. see. the difference! 😉

    Thanks too, to Debby Giusti for linking from Seekerville today.

    Happy writing everypawdy!

  22. Aimee Nov 8 2013 at 12:02 am #

    Okay, so I’ve noticed that I use the word ‘can’ a lot in my story, but I don’t know how I would be able to replace them with something else! The main places they show up are in dialogue, so is that okay? Or do I need to change that also? How could I change it, and what word(s) could I use? Someone pleaseeee respond. (:

    • M. Talmage Moorehead Aug 17 2014 at 11:26 pm #

      I don’t think you need to worry about it in dialogue. Dialogue needs to sound alive, interesting in content, full of personality and somewhat natural. It should rarely if ever sound like a person writing in the shadow of a list of specialized writing rules.

      “Can” is a little unique among these words they’re calling “filter words,” I think. It usually goes with another verb, like “I can see.” In those cases it can be dropped easily. “I see.” Of course, “to see” can be a filter word, so if you always cut it, you’ve got, “I.”

      A little common sense has to come in.

      If you’re writing in first person present…
      “I honestly hope you can.” You can’t change that, can you?
      “I honestly hope you are able.” Nah.
      Also note that “to hope” is sometimes considered a filter word. So now we’re left with…
      “I honestly wish for you to be able.” That sounds ridiculous.

      Common sense, I guess.

      I have a tendency to hope that I’ll discover a technical word trick that will propel my fiction from boring to exciting, but I suspect the magic lies in the story and characters, not in the words themselves.

      I need to forget technical wordsmithing while I write my first couple of drafts because it engages the logical part of my brain and puts the creative part to sleep. I think it’s like that for most writers. Anne Lamott’s emphasis on the value of deliberately forcing yourself to write a “sh#tty first draft” is good advice because it forces you to turn off the analytic mind and focus on the true job at hand – creating a worthy dream.

  23. Jennifer Austin Jul 10 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    I would also add “start”, “only”, “just” and “really” to the list. “Start” is the only filter of those:

    I start to run. – I run.

    But only, just and really can be very problematic too. They are filter adverbs, I guess, changing the tone or intensity of an verb. Sometime they’re okay, especially in dialogue since that is how people talk, but I used them so much in my novel it was almost a relief to do a Find and Replace and change many of them.

    She’s really just going to the store, but only because she wants ice cream. – She’s going to the store because she wants ice cream.

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  25. Anonymous Feb 25 2015 at 7:06 pm #

    Another filter word that you should add is, “to know”.

  26. AstroNerdBoy Jan 1 2016 at 7:53 pm #

    What I find amusing about “filter words” (and I only just learned about them and how they are this apparent enormous problem) is that everyone who discusses them talks about how natural it is to write using them. That means that folks have to write in an unnatural way to accomplish eliminating them from text.

    Still, this is an interesting read as I can see how sometimes sentences work a bit better without the filter words.

  27. Paige Halle May 3 2016 at 3:50 pm #

    I use “so” a lot and I think it can be considered a filter word to.

  28. Laney Jul 14 2016 at 8:21 pm #

    Do you have any suggestions or examples to help me eliminate the usage of filter words in first person POV?

    • Sherry Soule Jul 17 2016 at 5:54 pm #

      I can help you. Shoot me an email. I write in first-person POV, too. I have a few examples that should help you to deepen the POV. 😉

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