Smoking without a Filter: How Filter Words are Taking the Fire Out of Your Writing
“She watched as the man pulled a knife from his jacket pocket. She knew that if she didn’t get away now, in the next minute, it would be too late. She saw a door across the room that she thought she could get to before he got to her. Before she could change her mind, she ran for it! She heard his footsteps behind her as she raced across the room, her hand outstretched, reaching for the knob.”
Exciting stuff, right? Lots of tension, lots of action. So what’s the problem, you ask? (And you know there has to be a problem, or I wouldn’t bother writing a blog post about it, right?) The problem is that the paragraph is chock full of filter words. Filter words are words that unnecessarily filter the action through a character’s point of view. Some examples of filtering words are “watch,” “know,” “wonder,” “realize” “see,” “hear,” “think,” “touch,” “watch,” “look,” “seem,” “feel,” “decide,” “sound,” “notice,” and “experience.” In the paragraph above, we have “she watched,” “she knew,” “she saw,” and “she heard.”
Filter words put distance between your readers and the action. Instead of being in the thick of things, they are watching someone else react to being in the thick of things. In our example, the reader doesn’t see a man pull out a knife, they see the protagonist watching a man pull out a knife. They don’t hear his footsteps come up behind them, they watch the character as she hears his footsteps. Still frightening, but not as frightening as it could be. Let’s rewrite the paragraph and eliminate the filter words so you can see the difference.
“The man pulled a knife from his jacket pocket. If she didn’t get away now, in the next minute, it would be too late. There was a door across the room that she could get to before he got to her if she was lucky. Before she could change her mind, she ran for it. His footsteps sounded behind her as she raced across the room, her hand outstretched, reaching for the knob.”
Wow! Talk about tense! Now your readers are right there in the room. They aren’t looking through a window at the action. They are smack dab in the middle of it. Their hearts are racing as they run for the door, hearing those footsteps getting closer and closer. The experience is no longer filtered; it feels real. And that is your goal as a writer, to make your readers feel as if they’ve been dropped into this world you’ve created. When you use filter words, not only do you ratchet the tension and emotion down, but you make it more obvious that there’s somebody writing this thing, someone telling the story. You step out from behind the curtain when what you want is to fade into the background as your readers get lost in your story. An added bonus to weeding out those filter words is that it often improves the pacing of a paragraph, moving things along more smoothly by eliminating unnecessary words.
So there are lots of great reasons to track down those filter words in your manuscript and get them out of there. Does this mean you can never use a filter word in your writing? As with most things, there are exceptions to the rule. If the filter word is crucial to your meaning, then of course you would leave it in. For example, if your character says, “I could feel the sun on my face, but I couldn’t get the chill out of my bones,” it is important to know that she could feel the sun to contrast with its lack of effect on her. Just saying, “The sun was on my face, but I couldn’t get the chill out of my bones” doesn’t have the same effect.
Make a point to look for filter words when you edit your manuscript, as they are easy to miss. If you discover there are certain filter words that you typically use, you can use the search function of your word processor to hunt them down. Once you find them, yank those filter words right out of there to crank up the fire for your readers.