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?

Writer as Witness

Frontyard2.dianapeach.jpg

As storytellers, we create settings and characters with enough authenticity to entrap readers in our imaginations. The goal is to elicit feelings somewhere in the broad spectrum of human experience, to personally invest the reader in the outcome of our tales.

Frontyard1.dianapeach.jpgA sense of reality and plausibility in our stories aids us in that task. External intricacy adds texture as it paints pictures in a reader’s mind. Our own emotional landscape is fodder for our characters’ souls.

I love the idea of writers as witnesses. We are observers of details, the ones with personal knowledge of hidden imagery and feelings, which we attest to through our words.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron encourages artists to become witnesses, to take time out of each day to observe our outer and inner worlds with curiosity, as a way of enriching our store of experience and ultimately our art. She suggests occasional artist’s vacations, to gather experiences foreign to our daily routines.

Frontyard3.dianapeach.jpgI frequently wander about in zombie-like unconsciousness. My familiarity with my routine and surroundings allows my brain to dally elsewhere, usually embroiled in developing scenes, prodding characters, and plugging up plot holes.

Unless I make a mindful choice to engage, I don’t.

I wrote a post back in October called Emotional Writing about a necessary willingness to explore painful feelings. This is tough work: witnessing our own agony and blindness, picking through our hearts with an observer’s impartial eye. And how far are we willing to delve into someone else’s experience, to embrace it as our own?

Frontyard5.dianapeach.jpgToday I’m another kind of witness. If I sit still and pay attention, I see cloudy light reflected on rain-slick leaves, the diamond patterns of stained glass at the end of a dark hallway. Gossamer cobwebs thread the air around the old chandelier. The dog snores on the couch and rain drips from sagging gutters to patter on the metal roof. It’s chilly this morning, and Pinky the cat has commandeered my sweater. If my nose weren’t stuffy, I might smell coffee brewing.

Any one of these details may end up in my writing today.

I share a few photos of moss growing in my yard. I would have never witnesses the beauty if I hadn’t taken the time to look.

Confessions of a Clueless Blogger

Map of the Internet

Map of the Internet

I’ve been posting for 3 years now, and most of you savvy bloggers might assume I learned a thing or two about this art and craft during that time. The wretched truth is, until recently, I floundered in a quagmire of cluelessness. I blogged for the sake of blogging, because someone (my publisher, probably) advised me it was mandatory. Every month, I dragged myself away from my latest writing endeavor to spend a full day laboring over a few hundred words that maybe someone would read.

Now, you have to understand that back in the olden days we had typewriters…yep. Computers existed, of course. They hummed in the secretive cellars of IBM and flashed on Captain Kirk’s console. Don’t get me wrong, there was life before cell phones, microchips, and social media, but it wasn’t wired. Social, in my day, was trespassing at the reservoir with a bonfire and keg on Saturday night and hoping the police didn’t break up the party and send us home.

Once I graduated from keg parties, I toiled in business where keeping up with technology was routine. I spent my waking hours on spreadsheets and typing with all ten fingers. After that, a switch to mental health counseling, followed by a decision to write, began a rather rapid descent into technological fossilization. The social media thing, when it reared its monstrous head, felt overwhelming. It didn’t come with instructions. I was supposed to learn it by osmosis without a teenager’s eye-rolling guidance.

robert-leighton-caveman-looking-at-a-chart-of-the-evolution-of-man-that-is-labeled-you-a-new-yorker-cartoonThen this great thing happened.

Nicholas Rossis, awesome blogger and author from the far side of the planet, read one of my books and reached out through social media.

Huh. Tiny synapses flickered in my primordial brain as I pondered this curious event. You mean…social media is supposed to be social? Yeesh. Took me long enough to figure that out.

Rossis offered advice on blogging and writing, as well as other features that intrigued me. Determined to climb the evolutionary ladder, I started following his blog (http://nicholasrossis.me/). This was a giant leap forward. Up until this point, I didn’t know how to follow blogs without provoking cryptic computer-generated warnings riddled with exclamation points.

Well, I clicked the button and nothing crashed. I dodged the chilling meltdown anticipated by the technologically primitive, and propelled by this remarkable feat, I started poking around. I discovered blogs that shared invaluable information and was swept up in the sublime words of immensely gifted writers. Who knew?

It’s been several months since my mini blogging enlightenment, and I still find the left-brain advice on how to market through social media somewhat overwhelming. I read it and tuck it away for later, content to just be me and offer you a peek inside my writing and my head.

But, I follow lots of blogs now.

I read your stories, pour over your advice, share your trepidation, laugh aloud, and hoot for your victories. I “like” often and comment when something strikes a chord. Who wouldn’t marvel at the talent out there in the blogosphere and want to be part of the vast, supportive community of writers, artists, and readers? Little by little, I’m making those connections. I found an island of solid ground in that quagmire of cluelessness, and I’m leaving a few muddy footprints behind me…finally.

Happy New Year!