Filtering Out Filter Words

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I’m currently trudging through the first draft of my second novel, an experience made horribly stressful by my self-imposed one-month deadline. (Just over two weeks to go! Eek!) I’m already way behind schedule after spending the first four days completely ignoring all the advice I gave myself in my previous post on first drafts, but I’ve just about got the hang of it now.

The trick is to keep writing, to keep pushing forward – by any means necessary.

My first draft is really terrible so far. I’ve avoided all attempts at metaphors, I ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, and my humorous novel is currently lacking anything close to a joke. But the words are coming – and with a first draft, that’s all you need. The clever stuff comes later.

In terms of helping to get words on the page, one particular cardinal sin of writing has helped me the most: filter words. So as a thank you to this writer’s block-busting technique, I’m going to dedicate a blog post to why you shouldn’t use them.

Yeah. Sorry, filter words.


What are filter words?

Filter words are often used (unconsciously) by writers as a way to ease into descriptions. Instead of simply laying down the information, the writer filters it through their main character’s eyes. Here’s an example:

  • James glanced up at the building. It stretched into the foggy sky, its upper floors blurred into nothingness.
  • The building stretched up into the foggy sky, its upper floors blurred into nothingness.

Or, to put it more simply:

  • James glanced up at the tall building.
  • The building was tall.

Filter words make your character an active participant in the narrative; they validate the description by “proving” it. It’s like when you’re told to show your method in a maths exam: the building can be described because you’ve shown that James looked at it. And once he knows what it looks like, so can we.

Or so the stressed writer’s brain thinks…

Examples of filter words

Filter words are tied up in the senses: they’re about looking, hearing, tasting, touching, hearing, smelling… It’s how your character directly experiences the world. Here are a few words to look out for in your own writing.

Looked, watched, glanced, gazed, noticed, realised, heard, thought, felt, touched, sensed, sniffed, searched… 

The most-abused sense is sight. People in first drafts are forever looking, forever glancing, forever turning to see something. Have a look through your own writing. How many filter words have you got? How many are in this piece?

  • As Kit revved the engine and the family waved, Ella noticed Miranda’s look of resignation as she was pressed against Joshua’s chest by a forceful hand. She saw the crumpled expression of Terry, as Miranda hid her eyes shamefully from him, and, as the car suddenly jerked off away from the large stone steps, she made out the large, sneering grin on Joshua’s face as he tightly grasped what was his.

That’s an extract from the (criminally bad) first draft of my first novel, Beyond the Call of Beauty. Believe me, it was painful to go back through that document! (Let’s not even mention the obvious telling or the repetition of ‘large’ in the second sentence, okay?) To put it into perspective, that 60,000-word draft used the word ‘look’ and its derivatives 257 times; my final 90,000-word manuscript uses it 211 times.

Unless you look out for them, filter words can infest your work – and not in a cute Disney rodent kind of way, either.

What’s so wrong about filter words, then?

Most filter words are unnecessary. Redundant. Pointless. They do little more than stall your description and bulk up your word count. (And trust me, you’ll need all the extra words you can get when it’s time to polish your final draft.)

Let’s go back to James and his tall building. If you’re writing in first person or limited third person (where you follow one character and can see inside their head only) from James’ perspective, then mentioning the building at all means he’s looking at it. If he wasn’t, how could he/the narrator describe it? His look at the building goes without saying.

Take my terrible draft extract as an example: three of the four filter words are pointless. Ella is an amateur sleuth, so the ‘noticed’ can potentially stay because it reinforces her role as detective, but ‘saw,’ ‘look,’ and ‘made out’ definitely have to go. Why? Because they don’t add anything to the paragraph. Ella is already looking at the other characters on the steps, and that doesn’t need to be repeated.

If she wasn’t looking, she wouldn’t be able to see them.

Filter your filter words

Now, don’t hit me, but – not all filter words are bad.

Sometimes the act of looking is important to a scene or to a character. Ella does a lot of looking, glancing, and staring because she’s a sleuth: the things she notices are important. If Ella ‘notices’ something, that’s a signal to the reader that nobody else has seen it. It’s a sign that it might be an important clue. Similarly a love-sick character or stalker would need to ‘stare’ or ‘gaze’ across the room at a member of the opposite sex, because the act of looking defines them.

If you’re not sure whether you should cut a bit of filtering or not, try reworking the sentence without it. Does it still mean what you meant it to? Is your point coming across?

As always, the key is experimentation. What works for you? What are your strengths and weaknesses? You won’t find out unless you practice.

Alternatives to filter words

Many filter words – once spotted – can simply be cut. You may need to jiggle the words around a bit, but usually the sentence can still survive. Like my example from earlier:

  • James glanced up at the building. It stretched into the foggy sky, its upper floors blurred into nothingness.
  • The building stretched up into the foggy sky, its upper floors blurred into nothingness.

If you want to keep James present in the moment, try reworking the act of looking through showing rather than telling.

  • James tilted his head back, his eyes squinted. The building stretched up into the foggy sky above, its upper floors blurred into nothingness

To pack a bigger punch, pump the senses and emotions you hoped to convey into the description itself.

  • The building towered over James, its upper floors blurred into nothingness by the suffocating fog above.

Here, ‘over’ and ‘above’ place James firmly on the ground, while ‘towered’ and ‘suffocating’ add an element of fear or helplessness to the description.

Lucy glanced at her notebook, wondering what to write next. Oh, a conclusion!

As (I hope) I’ve shown above, starting with a filter word or phrase isn’t a bad thing. It’s really helping me to get through my first draft because it’s a point-and-click approach – someone looks over there, and there’s a thing, great, describe it, done. I don’t have to stress about saying it uniquely; I just get to say it.

But when I get to my second draft, it’ll all go. It has to. The final version of the building sentence is my favourite, because it’s emotive and powerful – but I wouldn’t have got there without starting with the simple idea of James looking up.

And for me, that’s what filter words are about. They’re little markers you leave for yourself in your draft to edit at a later date, to improve upon. When the time for proper writing comes, when you really need to be focusing on the words and the feelings, that’s when you pull out the markers and replace them with something far, far better.

So don’t just stare. Surprise.


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Thanks for reading, guys. What do you think about filter words? Are they something you use, or have you kicked the habit? How do you spot them in your work?

Let me know in the comments!

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16 thoughts on “Filtering Out Filter Words

    • Thank you! So many great writing tips are the ones that fly under the radar – you just need someone to point them out. Just had a look at some of your short stories, they’re great! I’m too much of a waffler to do them myself, though.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

      Like

    • Thanks for the reblog! It’s definitely one of the ‘silent killers’ of creative writing, and so easy to miss. Good luck with The Jump – what’s it about? I guess I’ll jump over to your blog to find out!

      Like

      • Science-fiction. It envisions a future in which only a select few have access to faster-than-light travel, and what people are willing to do to get it.

        Reading your posts will be very useful as I write it.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: 10 Tips From a Flash Fiction Judge | Lucy Goacher's Blog

  2. I wish I would have read this like two weeks ago. I just had an editor point out exactly this in a manuscript. I could have submitted a cleaner version had I read this piece of advice. Good stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

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