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)
- 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?