One of the most common issues I see in client manuscripts is a tendency to overuse filter words. Let’s take a look at what filter words are and how to get rid of them (or use them appropriately!) in fiction writing.
What Are Filter Words?
Filter words (or filter phrases) are words which put distance between the reader and the action/emotion of a scene. Writers often use them to “set the scene” by showing the reader that they are looking through the character’s eyes. But what they don’t realize is that this often isn’t necessary! Especially in first-person or third-person limited perspective writing, the reader already knows they are looking through the character’s eyes.
While the writer may think they are helping by providing filter words, they are really inserting a layer between the reader and the story, and doing so can often cause clunkiness or repetition. Filter words are a reminder that things are happening, and that you’re reading a story and not experiencing it.
In most situations, removing the filter words can actually strengthen the writing, since it'll give a more concise and immersive experience to the reader.
Examples of Filter Words
When I’m editing, I often keep an eye out for filter words and remove them from manuscripts (or point them out to the author) if I can. Some filter words I see a lot are:
can/could + another word (e.g. “could see”)
was + -ing verb (e.g. “was walking”)
In the case of almost all the words listed above, the reader doesn’t usually need to be told that the character is doing any of this. Readers already know that characters are seeing, hearing, watching, thinking, knowing, deciding, etc. It’s part of the story, after all!
Noticing Filter Words Out and Editing Them Out
Let’s take a look at the following example, which is laden with tons of filter words.
John watched Michelle head toward the door. He felt like he had to stop her. He thought if she'd just listen to him, she’d realize she wanted to stay. He wondered what he was waiting for. He noticed her hand turn the doorknob, and he could sense that she was one second away from walking out.
Now let’s take a look at it with all the filter words edited out.
Michelle headed toward the door. John had to stop her. If she'd just listen to him, she'd want to stay, he was sure of it. What was he waiting for? Her hand turned the doorknob, and he sensed that she was one second away from walking out.
The rewritten version of the paragraph is more immersive, because the character’s feelings and actions are right there in the forefront, and they are directly accessible to the reader. The rewritten version is also 47 words, in comparison to the original version's 56 words, which is a 15% reduction in word count.
When Are Filter Words Appropriate?
Filter words aren’t all bad, though! In fact, there are some situations where they are perfectly appropriate. Let’s take a look at some of those.
Sometimes you intentionally want to introduce narrative distance or pull the reader back from the action. This could be an instance where your character is drugged or sleepy and is experiencing their own situation with some distance. Or it could be when they are emotionally traumatized and feeling numb. Or it could be some other instance where you want the reader to notice the presence of the narrator.
Sometimes they are necessary for the story to make sense. For instance, if it’s important that your character is watching or hearing something (perhaps from a distance or in a covert scenario), or if it’s important that they are realizing something for the first time.
Sometimes you want to mix up your writing and deliberately introduce some “telling” instead of “showing” prose.
Sometimes you need to deliberately change the mood or speaking/writing style. For instance, if the character is questioning a lot of aspects of their situation or nature.
What we’re primarily aiming for is using filter words in an appropriate way. Like most things in fiction writing, context and style are important. It’s okay to have filter words, and sometimes it’s even necessary. But it’s important to review your writing closely to make sure you’re not overusing them in situations where they aren’t needed!
Especially in first drafts, it’s common to introduce a lot of filter words in order to get the story down quickly and cohesively. But it’s also important to review the text later and see where you can improve the writing and make it smoother or more immersive.