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What Are Filter Words?
The term filter words, also called distancing words, refers to unnecessary words that separate the reader from the action. They add an extra layer of fluff that the reader has to slog through. A bit of meaning, urgency, or immediacy are lost in this layer, thus the term ‘filter’ words.
Usually (but not always) filter verbs force us to see things through the viewpoint of a character, to focus on the character’s reaction or observation of the action, rather than the action itself. The reader is just another step more removed from the story.
See below for a list of common filtering words, and examples of their usage.
Examples of Filtering
With filter words: Cheryl noticed that the water level had begun to rise. She felt the water lapping at her knees.
Without filter words: The water level had risen – it now lapped at Cheryl’s knees.
With filter words: Brian saw the first bright fingers of sunlight come up over the mountains.
Without filter words: The first bright fingers of sunlight came up over the mountains.
With filter words: Lisa thought the Persian throw rug was especially ugly. *
Without filter words: The rug’s dominant shade of baby-puke green clashed horribly with the carefully chosen minimalist solids of the living room.
Why are Filter Words Bad?
Filter words are detrimental for two reasons:
- They add an extra layer of meaningless fluff for the reader to slog through
- They remove all sense of immediacy or urgency. They make the story and action seem more distant to the reader.
Filter words keep the reader an extra arm’s length away from what you want them to know about. The reader can’t experience things for themselves. It’s as if you had some sort of rare Egyptian scarab in your hand, and beckoned a friend over to examine it – but instead of letting them look at it, you hold up your arm, and describe it for them instead.
See how annoying that is? If your friends are anything like mine, they would eventually get bored and frustrated and go elsewhere. The same thing will happen with your readers.
*It’s also a lot easier to tell and not show when using filter verbs. In the example above about the Persian rug, it’s easier to say “Lisa thought the Persian rug was ugly” than “The Persian rug was ugly” because we’re trusting Lisa’s opinion. Remove the filter, however, and we’re forced to describe why the rug is ugly.
List of Filter Words
Common filter words include:
- To notice
- To see
- To feel, to feel like
- To think
- To decide
- To know
- to hear
- to watch
- to realize
- to seem, to seem like
- to sound, to sound like
The three filter words that I (and other writers) see most in my own first drafts are to realize, to seem, and to feel. These can almost always be stricken out of the final manuscript.
How to Fix Filter Verbs
Don’t worry about using filter verbs while writing your first draft, or when you’re macro-revising for content. There’s no point in fixing something if you might rewrite it later or take it out completely.
When you’ve begun line-editing, go through your manuscript and circle any instances of the above words. Then, one by one, check if you can take out the filtering without the sentence losing its intended meaning (you will probably have to change the verb tense or conjugation for the sentence to be grammatically correct).
Example: Cheryl noticed that the water level rose steadily. She felt Cold liquid lappinged at her Cheryl’s knees.
When Are Filter Words OK?
There will be instances when the use of filtering words is ok, and even necessary. One example is if the character’s viewpoint, experience, or reaction is the main purpose of the sentence.
Sometimes, using filter words adds some flow to your writing, and breaks up monotonous sentence patterns. They should definitely be used sparingly, however. If you’re filtering in every other paragraph, you’ve probably got too many. If you choose to use a filter word, you should have a specific reason to.
Resources and References