Disclaimer: the following writing advice is based on the author’s personal experience of writing fiction and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.
Writing advice often relates to the same two topics: show, don’t tell and write in the active voice. So, say you’re taking on these two nuggets of wisdom. You’re ready to incorporate the advice you keep getting from your critique partner(s) and your writing group! You’ve learned everything you need to know about how to change passive voice into active voice and how to show rather than tell. Yet, even though you’ve made certain to use verbs that aren’t being verbs and you’ve incorporated adjectives as descriptors, your writing still feels clunky. It’s still getting dinged at your critique group meetings.
This is because oops! in trying to fix one problem, you’ve introduced a new problem. And that’s the use of filter words and filter phrases in your writing.
Filter Words and Phrases in Writing
Not everyone knows about filter words and phrases. At least not by such a name. I don’t think I’d ever heard this phenomenon described as ‘filter words’ until I wanted to talk about this specifically, even though we discussed the issue in more than one of my writing group meetings.
Masterclass.com defines filter words and filter phrases this way:
Filter words are extra words that put distance between readers and a character’s experience. They are usually explanatory words that remove a reader from the action by describing a character’s thought process or action in an explanatory way.
What does that mean exactly? Most often, filter words appear in this format:
The above is an example of how oftentimes the narrative gets filtered through the lens of the point-of-view character’s experience. As such, the character may watch or see another character perform an action instead of simply describing that other character’s (or even object’s) action. Or a character’s body part may perform an action instead of the character.
Here are some samples:
- They watched the bridge crumble.
- My mind couldn’t understand.
- She heard her friend sigh.
- His ear felt warm breath.
However, filter words and phrases can crop up in less obvious ways. Check out how filter words may appear in a passage of prose.
Jake’s eyes switched rapidly between those of his captors, his mind slowly grasping that punishment was in fact not in his immediate future. He saw a smile curl up Fiona’s lips before she turned and walked back the way she came. Jake watched her go, striding past a gawking Clarice standing in the corner before leaving the room.
There are other issues in the passage beyond the filter words highlighted, including the dangling modifier. But fixing filter words and filter phrases often fixes these other issues when they’re introduced by said filters. We’ll go over how to correct them soon.
Why Filter Words and Phrases Happen
As implied in the introduction, filter words happen out of the effort to avoid passive voice and to show rather than tell. Instead of thinking of filter words as a bad thing, however, we can consider them a bridge between unmindful writing to intentional writing. A movement from beginner to master. Filter words are a result of trying harder.
Filter words fulfill the subject>(not being) verb requirement of writing in active voice through having the character’s experience express the narrative. “I heard my mom laughing” gets closer to active voice than “My mom was laughing.”
How to Fix Filter Words and Phrases in Your Writing
Your goal: to describe a scene as if it’s happening around the reader rather than the point-of-view character. This is not to say that you should start addressing the reader in second person point of view. Merely that you should describe what happens.
Below you will find tips for finding and removing filter words and phrases. Doing so will put you that much closer to descriptions that benefit the reader.
Identify filtering language
As the name suggests, look for anything that “filters” the narrative between the reader and the action, primarily through the main character’s experience.
- Look closely at verbs following the main subject of a sentence, especially “senses” verbs.
- “They watched [x thing happen]…”
- “They felt [x feeling]…”
- “They heard [x sound]…”
- Look for parts of the body doing the experiencing.
- “My foot felt something squishy…”
- “My mind understood the problem…”
Remove the point-of-view character as the subject
When you find filter words or phrases, fixing them is typically a mere matter of removing the point of view character as the subject, along with the accompanying verb. As a result, the focus shifts to the true subject—whoever or whatever the point-of-view character was hearing/feeling/smelling/whatever-ing.
- They watched the bridge crumble. -> The bridge crumbled.
- My mind couldn’t understand. -> I couldn’t understand.
- She heard her friend sigh. -> Her friend sighed.
- His ear felt warm breath. -> Warm breath touched his ear.
Tighten up the sentence
Tighten up elaborate phrases. While lengthy, complex sentences may not always contain filter words, tightening them up will a) help you find any filter words you may miss and b) improve your prose regardless.
Next is an example of these tips, using the paragraph introduced above.
‘s eyes switchedglanced rapidly between those ofhis captors, his mindslowly grasping that punishment was in factnot in his immediate future. He saw aFiona smiled before she turnedturning and walkedwalking back the way she came . Jake watched her go, striding past a gawking Clarice standing in the cornerClarice gawking in the corner before leaving the room.
(I would still further tighten up that last sentence, honestly.)
The Importance of Removing Filter Words and Phrases
You know how some reader reviews rave about how a story made them feel like they were right there in it?
Filter words do the opposite of that coveted result. They remove the reader from the narrative, holding them at arm’s length and pushing them out of the scene. Filtering actions through the point-of-view character’s experience disallows the reader to put themselves in the scene next to the characters, noting the narrative themselves as it happens.
Almost as importantly, everything described in a scene—unless specifically noted otherwise (through omniscient point of view)—is understood to have been observed by the point-of-view character. As such, there’s no need to specify that the point-of-view character witnessed something that happened, because readers know they did.
Got any questions about finding and removing filter words and phrases from your writing? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOUR experiences with filter words, I want to hear them!
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