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?

3 Fiction-Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping

While some of us are pushing through the last week of Nanowrimo, noses to our keyboards, an editing-monster looms in our future, packing on problems like a glutton.

Kathy Wagoner wrote a great post clarifying three different writing terms that carry a lot of unwanted calories. These are often newbie problems, and I’ll confess that they gave my early writing serious indigestion. The good news is that after fixing them thousands of times (literally), I do a better job of avoiding them in the first place.

Are these important? Yes. All three of these can knock a reader out of the book or reduce a reader’s engagement by distancing them from the characters and story. For me, head-hopping will usually result in an unfinished read.

Even after years of vigilance, I still have to put my monster on the editing treadmill to trim away the fat and give my writing more muscle. Kathy did a thorough job of explaining the terms and providing examples. It’s worth clicking over for a look. 🙂

via 3 Fiction Writing Terms: Data Dump, Filter Word, Head Hopping