The Word Police: Filter Words

The Word Police are at it again. This time they plan to rap some filter words on the head.

Filter words are generally bad dudes and worth arresting when you catch up to them. They’re guilty of two things:

  • They add lots of unnecessary/empty words to your story and therefore can bog down your pace… a lot.
  • They distance your readers from your characters. The “narrator” tells us that the character is thinking/sensing something (filters the information) instead of just letting us experience the thoughts/sensations directly.

In this 217-word passage, there are 20 filter words.

Greta stood on her front porch. She felt the long-awaited spring call her with a rustling of leaves and patter of hummingbird wings. A smile brightened her face as she watched them battle around the feeder that she’d remembered to fill yesterday.  She supposed she wasn’t the only one enjoying the languid morning. On the porch rail, she saw her lazy tabby stretch and heard his rumbling purr as she rubbed his ears. She knew he liked the sunshine; she imagined he always had.

Lilacs bloomed at the edge of the house, and she could smell their heady fragrance. There were other newcomers that morning. She noticed that the butterflies had returned with the warmer weather and saw crocuses pushing up through the grass. Years ago, her mother had planted them in the lawn, and she realized she’d seen them return every year since.   

Greta suddenly felt hungry, and she listened to her stomach growl. She wondered about the muffins baking in her kitchen and recognized the sound of the buzzer on the oven announcing they were done. She rushed through the screen door and heard it slam closed behind her as she hurried down the hall. She thought they would taste wonderful, and if she wanted to, she guessed she could eat them all by herself.

Now here’s the same passage written without them (173 words instead of 217):

Greta stood on her front porch. The long-awaited spring called her with a rustling of leaves and patter of hummingbird wings. A smile brightened her face as they battled around the feeder that she’d filled yesterday.  She wasn’t the only one enjoying the languid morning. On the porch rail, her lazy tabby stretched, and he rumbled a purr as she rubbed his ears. He liked the sunshine; he always had.

Lilacs bloomed at the edge of the house with a heady fragrance. There were other newcomers that morning. The butterflies had returned with the warmer weather and crocuses pushed up through the grass. Years ago, her mother had planted them in the lawn, and they’d returned every year since.   

Greta’s stomach growled with hunger. Muffins baked in her kitchen, and the buzzer on the oven announced they were done. She rushed through the screen door, and it slammed closed behind her as she hurried down the hall. They would taste wonderful, and if she wanted to, she could eat them all by herself.

That’s about 22% less words!

Same meaning, improved pace, and closer to the character’s experience.

Less distracting to your reader, too.

You won’t be able to eliminate all filter words, nor should you, but an editing pass to rid yourself of a bunch of those annoying delinquents is worth the effort. And it isn’t that difficult when you know what to search for.

Here’s my starter list: watched, saw, observed, felt, smelled, tasted, heard, knew, thought, suspected, remembered, believed, understood, imagined, doubted, supposed, realized, wondered, guessed, hoped, wished…

Do you kill off the filter words in your writing?

162 thoughts on “The Word Police: Filter Words

  1. tidalscribe says:

    I’m always surprised how many filter words have crept in when I read through what I have written. Like a sculptor, i continually pare down my work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah says:

    This is awesome!! I wasn’t aware of filter words but it makes a lot of sense to eliminate them to have a tighter story. 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    • This little snippet contained 22% filter words, Sarah. Imagine if it was only 10% – in a 200 page book, that would mean the reader had 20 pages of “knew, felt, thought, saw, heard…). Ugh. Who wants to read all those useless words? And the best part is they are easy to cut. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Happy Writing and Reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. WONDERFUL. You just gave me a great idea of what my lesson will be when I teach my next Creative Writing class this week, Diana. Thank you for writing about filter words so clearly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, Pam. I think examples are the best way to show how sneaky these things are. They sound fine, but you take them out and the prose is so much better, tighter, immediate. I’m sensitive to these pests, and too many of them will destroy a book for me. And the best part about getting rid of them… it’s easy! I’m so glad you’re going to share it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d never heard of “filter words” in relation to narrative stance until I read your post. I’m doing final edits on a new short story. I’m going to give it a read-through for filter words right now!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Great reminder to watch for those pesky filter words, Diana! I find my first draft is littered with them. Every revision whittles their numbers down. Even so, sometimes those little buggers sneak through. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • My experience exactly, Julie. I cut them with each draft and then find more. They’re so devious! And when I’m reading, they distract me from diving into a story, like someone flicking their fingernails on my forehead. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. srbottch says:

    Terrific post, especially for a neophyte writer, me. I will print it and have it nearby for reference. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. J.D. Riso says:

    Such good advice here, Diana. This is why revising, several times, is so important.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, J.D. I agree with you! There are few people who can justify publishing after 2-3 drafts. I do a lot of revising, tons of drafts, several passes looking for a specific writing habit to break – like this one. No matter how hard I try to avoid these words, they sneak in there. Thanks for the visit and have a lovely day. ❤

      Like

  8. It took me a little while to get the hang of not using filter words. I kept forgetting I was inside my characters head. Saying that she was seeing or thinking something was unnecessary and redundant. Your paragraph without those is so much smoother. Thanks for the writing lesson, D!

    Liked by 4 people

    • I still have to edit them out of my work, Betsy. They just get in there somehow. I really dislike them in my reading, so try hard not to subject my own readers to the misery. I’m glad this was nothing new for you. Happy Writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Vashti Q says:

    Hello, Diana! You gave a great example of good writing. Thanks for the reminder. Have a delightful new week! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

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