A while ago, someone gave me some writing feedback, and in a handful of comments, one person dug into my work and left it a smoldering heap of trash. I was impressed how much they gutted me when I thought I was a better author.
Fast forward two weeks, after my ego healed, and I looked into the things I had dismissed: filters. That word appeared in almost every comment. I couldn’t figure out what they meant, and they offered no explanation. Filters? How do you filter with words?
I searched high and low for this elusive term and discovered little on the topic, and what I read only explained the surface of what filtering is. Since then, I’ve put in a lot of work to understand what it is and what it isn’t (because sometimes a filter word doesn’t act like a filter), and I believe I can make this vague concept digestible for you. So let’s start with my definition:
Filters are words and phrases that keep a reader from experiencing the story through the character’s senses and instead tells the reader what the character is experiencing.
That seems like a case of show vs. tell, right? In essence, it is. Thus why I defined the term this way. If you go by its definition on Sribophile.com you get:
“In writing, filters are unnecessary words that separate the reader from the story’s action. They come between the reader’s experience and the character’s point of view.”
Okay, so we have unnecessary words and show vs. tell. But what does this mean in application?
Let’s say our story is in close third-person, but this also applies to first-person. Omniscient third-person can exhibit this problem too, but not as pervasively.
“Marroc glanced at the ship, its barnacle-encrusted hull repelling the crashing waves, and their fearless captain stood without fear on deck.”
The first clause gives us an unnecessary visual of Marroc turning to see the ship with “glanced,” when the narration describing the ship already shows he looked. If we’re reading a novel, all narrative and quoted speech is being experienced by the character’s point of view (POV).
It’s like watching a movie and a voice-over telling you what the main character is doing as they are doing it. That would get annoying quickly, wouldn’t it? How about reading a 100k word novel riddled with the narrator getting between you and the story?
We can remove the first clause and make it more dynamic:
“The sound of waves crashing on the ship’s barnacle-encrusted hull drew Marroc’s attention, and he saw their fearless captain standing without fear on the deck.”
Wait! We changed the sentence and removed the word “glanced,” so shouldn’t the filter be gone? Read that again. We removed the specific filter “glanced,” but we introduced another filter “saw” and added another filtering phrase with “drew Marroc’s attention.” But why are those filters?
Marroc is our camera, so everywhere the camera turns we “see” what he sees. Therefore, does a narrator need to say when something draws Marroc’s attention, or that “he saw” something? No. Both instances come between the reader and the character’s POV, telling us what the character is experiencing, instead of just showing it.
So how would you fix this? Maybe something like:
“Waves crashed on the ship’s barnacle-encrusted hull, and there, standing on the deck, was their fearless captain.”
Much better. I even get the sweeping visual of seeing the waves hit the hull of the ship, and then I pan up to see the captain. By removing the stage direction for what our POV is doing, we are seeing things as he looks from one thing to the next, and I guarantee the reader won’t miss the bland redundancies we took out. Added bonus, this version cut words we can use in a more important part of our story.
This also highlights that by trying to remove filters we can accidentally introducing more. So as you get familiar with filters, look at your fix before moving on.
How about the internal processes of thinking, believing, or realizing? Since we can’t show internal thought, we need to say what’s going on in the character’s head, right?
“Marroc couldn’t believe it, Susie was alive!”
Believe it or not, “believe” is acting as a filter in this sentence. He isn’t doing something that can be shown through action, but you’re robbing yourself of the opportunity to show how that disbelief affects him outwardly.
Filtering your writing this way is redundant, and readers are more intuitive than you can imagine. So if you cut the filter and reword it, you’ll still wind up with narrative that makes sense, doesn’t interject, and has more impact:
“Marroc gasped—Susie was alive!”
By taking the filter out, we let his actions and the narration show Marroc couldn’t believe Susie was alive, instead of telling the reader what he was experiencing.
These are short examples, but I find that cutting filters reduces my sentence length by 3-7 words. It may seem insignificant to cut 3-7 words here or there, but you might find, as I did, you use a lot of filters and redundancies like this. Those 3-7 words cut out of every 200 will snowball, and in a 100k word novel, which is the equivalent of 1,500-3,500! Imagine what else you could do with an extra chapter or two.
These are fairly simple examples, but we have to start easy because they get more convoluted. I’ll leave you with a list of common filter words I’ve come across. There are more, and they aren’t restricted to single words, but it’s a great starting point.
- be able to
If you take this list and highlight all the filter words in your own writing, you’ll see many places you can cut these unnecessary word-sinks!
In part 2 of this series on filtering, we will dig into the nuances of filtering and how to recognize when a filter is a filter, and when it isn’t.
Do you know any other filter words, or are you struggling with them in your own work? Post it in the comments, and we’ll tackle them together.