Writing/Editing 101: Filter Words

Writing/Editing 101: Filter Words

Want to immediately pull the reader in and strengthen your POV? Hunt down filter words and eliminate as many as possible.

What is a Filter Word

Filter words create distance between the action in your story and the reader. They include words like: saw, heard, noticed, realized, thought, wondered, and felt. But those words initiate sensory description, you say. Yes, that’s true, but they also remind your reader that they are removed from the action instead of letting them feel immersed in the scene. They often also lead to a “telling” voice vs. a “showing” voice. Overuse of filter words is a common mistake of writers in both third- and first-person POV, though I would say that in first-person, it can absolutely kill the story. Removing these words not only tightens up the writing, it demonstrates the author trusts the reader to understand what is happening (instead of explaining it to them) and it encourages the use of stronger, more impactful verbs.

Third-Person POV Example

Debra paused at the top of the stairs and saw the red door at the end of the hall. It looked oddly familiar.

As she took a step towards the door, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. There was something off about this place.

She heard a soft whisper calling to her. The gentle, calming voice washed over her like a cool breeze on a sticky, summer day.

“Come, child. We’ve been waiting for you.”

How many filter words can you find? By my count, there are five: saw, took, felt, feel, and heard.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these sentences. They are grammatically correct, but let’s look at the impact of a revision that removes these filter words.

Debra paused at the top of the stairs. The red door at the end of the hallway looked oddly familiar.

As she stepped towards the door, the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Her heart pounded in her chest. There was something off about this place.

A soft whisper called to her. The gentle, calming voice washed over her like a cool breeze on a sticky, summer day.

“Come, child. We’ve been waiting for you.”

See the difference? Not only does it put the reader just over Debra’s shoulder, but it heightens the intensity, trust the reader to understand something spooky is happening here, and it strengthens the verbs in those sentences.

First-Person POV Example

I watched as he paced from one side of the room to the other. I could hear the stiff staccato of his heels on the tile.

“There’s nothing we can do now,” I said to him.

“That’s why I’m pacing.”

He pivoted once again, but stopped to pick up his pipe from the side table.

Seconds later I smelled the sweet hint of tobacco as the smoke drifted from the tiny glowing embers.

“Do you think he’s dead?” he asked as he passed in front of my chair.

“We’ll know by morning,” I said and reached out to take his hand. I noticed his palm was warm and soft, but his calloused fingers were cold and hard.

Once again, these filter words remind the reader that they are removed from the “I” character. Some stories are written this way intentionally, to create a first-person narrator, someone removed from the action within the story itself. But generally speaking, first person seeks to make the reader feel as if they are seeing and experiencing the action of a scene through the character’s POV.

Here’s that same scene rewritten to remove filter words:

He paced from one side of the room to the other. Each click of his heels on the tile a stiff staccato.

“There’s nothing we can do now,” I said to him.

“That’s why I’m pacing.”

He pivoted once again, but stopped to pick up his pipe from the side table.

Seconds later, the soft, sweet scent of tobacco drifted across the room.

“Do you think he’s dead?” he asked as he passed in front of my chair.

“We’ll know by morning,” I said and reached out to take his hand. His palm was warm and soft, a stark contrast to his cold, hard, calloused fingers .

Once again, removing those filter words shortens the distance between the reader and the action and heightens the intensity. And it requires the use of stronger verbs.


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