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?

Crutch Words – the Word Police

wikimedia commons: keystone cops

The Word Police are back at it, rapping on my door and handing out citations. I plea-bargained my way out of jail by agreeing to publically share some of my past transgressions. The hope is that other wayward writers will take heed and avoid my mistakes. Crutch Words is the first in a series of writing tips from the coppers.

What are Crutch words?

Crutch words are words that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence. They’re hollow words that we automatically insert and frequently don’t notice. We want our writing to be tight and sharp. Too many crutch words will slow down the pace and dull the impact.

An interesting thing about crutch words is that we often have favorites. You may never use some words from the list below and use others more than you want to admit!

As a condition of my parole, I provided examples of these sneaky words. And I remind you that it would be impossible to remove every one. Sometimes you need them (in which case they aren’t crutches at all). Simply be aware of yours and edit when appropriate.

Here’s a list of some common crutch words:

that, then, next, just, actually, really, still, yet, only, so, even, began, started, going to…

Below are some examples of these sneaky words used in sentences. Notice how they nothing to the meaning.

She missed all the targets he’d lined up for her.
She missed all the targets that he’d lined up for her.

He grabbed the towel hanging over the rail.
He grabbed the towel that hung over the rail.

Mary knelt in the garden, yanked on her gloves, and spent the day weeding.
Mary knelt in the garden, yanked on her gloves, and then spent the day weeding.

Burt finished his breakfast. He delivered the packages and stopped at the market.
Burt finished his breakfast. Next, he delivered the packages and stopped at the market.

I’m trying to push the boat from the dock.
I’m just trying to push the boat from the dock.

If he intended to use the knife, he’d need to sharpen it.
If he actually/really/still intended to use the knife, he’d need to sharpen it.

He didn’t know whether he’d attend the wedding.
He didn’t know yet whether he’d attend the wedding.

If she could read the sign, she’d know which way to turn.
If only she could read the sign, she’d know which way to turn.

Teenagers rarely wake up early.
Teenagers so rarely wake up early.

He tried to climb the tree, but couldn’t reach the first limb.
He tried to climb the tree, but couldn’t even reach the first limb.

I chatted with Betty as we walked down the path. The lake sparkled in the distance.
I chatted with Betty as we began/started to walk down the path. The lake sparkled in the distance.

This will be the best day to hunt for shells.
This is going to be the best day to hunt for shells.

Next from the Word Police: Vague Words.

Happy Writing!

The Word Police

keystone-kops-granger

I’m back from my break and it wasn’t all about relaxing. In fact, I spent a good deal of time in custody. This post is about 3 years old, but the Word Police continue to visit me every time a WIP starts throwing it’s weight around and threatening to take hostages. While I catch up on reading posts and replying to comments, I hope you enjoy this oldie, but goodie.

***

Your WIP is looking respectable. It kicks off with a barbed hook and wraps up with a big fish. You’ve plugged up the plot holes, got the dialog flowing, the pace humming, and planted Chekov’s gun on the mantel. The characters are consistent, motivated, and true to life. The structure can withstand a windstorm.

The time has arrived for a visit from the Word Police,
and they’re a humorless bunch.

This is Step 3 in my editing process, the epitome of tediousness, a procrastinator’s nightmare. This is when writing is unadulterated, grueling toil. It’s time for me to weed out all those lame words, wimpy verbs, and crutch words that add no value to my prose. They’re plain old polyester when I strive for silk.

We all tap ordinary words. This post brims with them. Sometimes they’re the perfect choice, and sometimes there’s no wriggling around them.  In dialog, where characterization drives dialect and word choice, an attempt to police your words could prove foolhardy.

Yet, on the whole, if we explore more colorful options, delete the meaningless fillers, and zero in on those “telling” indicators, our writing will grow richer and more compelling.

In my case, the Word Police handcuff me to my recliner for weeks on end, inject me with caffeine, and force me to use the “Find” function in Word until my eyeballs dry out and my brain shrivels. They know my lazy words well, those I’m oblivious to as they tiptoe into my WIP. For starters the Crutch-word Cops make me look up 561 “that’s.”

I look at thousands of words, one at a time. When I can, I switch them out, thin them, delete them, or rewrite them away…depending.

word-police

Here’s the full list (except for the ones I missed). Get to know your favorites and feel free to add a few!

Wimpy Verbs: was/were, has/had, have, be, been, could, got, did, put, needed, wanted, gave, took, saw, walked, ran, sat, liked, moved, looked, appeared, seemed, made, turned, came, went, became…

Crutch Words – fillers:  that, then, next, well, OK, just, actually, really, only, still, yet, since, perhaps, maybe, so, even, tried, began, started…

Vague Words:  very, quite, rather, more, almost, about, around, often, some, somehow, somewhat…

Lame Words: really, awesome, amazing, great, better, dark, sad/happy, cold/hot, fast/slow, old/new, big/small, bad/good, nice, fine, interesting, beautiful, wonderful, sexy, for a moment, a bit, a few, lots, someone, something …

Telling Words – thinking/explaining: knew, thought, suspected, remembered, believed, understood, imagined, doubted, supposed, realized, wondered, guessed, hoped, wished, because…

Telling Words – sensing: Watched, saw, observed, felt, smelled, tasted, heard…

Telling Words – adverbs: Hopefully, quickly, slowly, slightly, sincerely, personally, possibly, certainly, exactly, finally, suddenly… (search by “ly”).

Any others I should add?

Keystone-Cops