Writing Tip: Filtering Filter Words

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As I’m working through the last edits for BLOOD & HOLY WATER, I am feverishly cutting out filter words. This is an alternating POV novel (3rd person) and my filter words are OUT OF CONTROL!

When I learned about these little attention detractors this past fall, it opened my eyes. Perhaps other (new-ish) writers don’t know about them either? Knowledge is half the battle, right? In this blog, I’m sharing a list of them, and my super-special trick to help remove them from my writing.

Definition of a filter word (per Pub(lishing) Crawl): “Filters are words or phrases you tack onto the start of a sentence that show the world as it is filtered through the main character’s eyes.”

Why eliminate them?

  • They make your writing less direct.
  • They separate the reader from the action and emotion.

Here’s my master list of filter words I try not to use when writing:

  • See / saw
  • Hear / heard
  • Think / thought
  • Touch / touched
  • Wonder / wondered
  • Seem / seemed
  • Decide / decided
  • Know / knew
  • Feel / felt
  • Look / looked
  • Notice / noticed
  • Realize / realized
  • Watch / watched
  • Sound
  • Can / could
  • To be able to
  • Note / noted
  • experience / experienced
  • remember / remembered

Here’s an example of some changes I recently made:

  • Before: He wondered where Ava had gone.
  • After: Where did Ava go?
  • Before: She felt the tingle of electricity flow up her arm.
  • After: Electricity flowed up her arm.
  • Before: He watched her dance in the rain.
  • After: She danced in the rain.

See how the changes make the reader closer to the action; almost a part of it.

Sometimes, it’s nearly impossible to eliminate a filter word, and I end up leaving them in.

So, as I become a more “experienced” writer, I’m more aware of these and write less and less of them into my story, but many times, I get captivated by my characters and end up writing a pile of filter words. When you have a novel-length manuscript, removing them can be a daunting task.

Here’s my super-special trick: I don’t worry abut them until the end—removal of filter words is on my final editing checklist. (Along with removal of my personal list of overused words including: really, very, that, just, then, totally, completely, back, finally, little, definitely, certainly, probably, start, begin, began, begun, rather, quite, somewhat, somehow, smile, said, breathe breath, inhale, exhale, shrug, nod, reach.)

This trick only works in Microsoft Word, but I’m sure other programs have something similar.

  • Open your document.
  • Select what color you’d like your filter words changed to using the “Text Highlight Color” button on the “Home” tab.
  • Still on the “Home” tab, click “Replace”
  • In the “Find what:” box, type your first filter word. For example: Hear
  • In the “Replace with:” box, type in the same exact word. For example: Hear
  • Click “More” then “Format” then “Highlight.”
  • Click “Replace All”
  • And there you go. Now when you do your final read through, the highlighted words will remind you they need attention. Cut them if possible.
  • When you’re all done, select your entire document and remove the highlighting.

Setting this up is a little time consuming, but worth it in the long run. Keep in mind, that you SHOULD NOT highlight words within words. Example: “Hear” will highlight all “Hear” including the “Hear” part of “Heard”, so you don’t have to go back and do “Heard”.

Wow. Now get back to editing. 🙂

As always, thanks for reading.

–Joy

Read more? Check out these sites:

What are your thoughts on filter words? How do you keep them out of your writing?

 

 

27 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Filtering Filter Words

    1. I always looked at passive voice as something different than filter words, but they both do the same thing to your writing–distance your reader from the story. (Notice I have a filter word write in this sentence. Urgh! I’m terrible with them.)

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve never encountered the term filter words before, but after reading your post I see how they can be an unnecessary distraction. I could quibble with one of your examples — “He watched her dancing in the rain” would be preferable to “She danced in the rain” if the focus is on the watcher and his reaction to the dancer. But overall, I find your advice very helpful. Thanks!

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    1. I’m glad I taught you a new word! I like your quibble. It creates good conversation. The “He watched her dance in the rain” vs “She danced in the rain” example would depend on the rest of the paragraph–whether the “He watched” is needed. And the best thing about writing? It’s everyone’s individual preference. That’s what gives each author such a unique style. Thanks for stopping and the comment!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Hi, I’m reading through a lot of blogs on filtering words (still learning!!) and found great advice directly relating to your comment. When the filtering word is the key action, it’s not filtering.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Those words are all on my search list during editing, too. The more practice we get at writing, the less we will use those words during the first draft. When I was leader of a critique group, beginner writers used to use ‘had’ and ‘that’ a lot. I was the slash queen in that critique group. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you found this useful! Taking off the highlights is super simple. Just go to your home screen and “select” then “select all.” Once your whole document is highlighted, click the “text highlight” button (also on your home screen) and select the drop down arrow-then “no color.” Hopefully that helps! I usually do this when I’m done going through the whole document and get rid of all the highlights at once. If you wanted to go word-by-word, just highlight your word and go to the “text highlight” drop down arrow.

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  3. I’m more of a reader than a writer, but when I write I always use the dialogue tag “said.” Why? Because when other authors use different words fro “said” such as “informed” or “queried” or “insert $5 dollar thesaurus equivilant here” it pulls me out of the story as it sounds really pretentious and amateurish. That said, the odd “whispered” or “shouted” or “mumbled” is fine as long as it fits the scene. The dialogue tag “said” is meant to be repetitious as it’s designed to fade away and NOT be noticable to the reader.

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  4. I’m not convinced.

    This is nothing more than a style choice. It’s true leaving filter words out moves the reader focus closer to plot. But they do this at the expense of moving the reader focus farther away from the character. If you’re writing a plot-based thriller, it could be good to do this. Or maybe it’s not a good choice. That’s a judgment call the author makes. Not every book is ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (thank God).

    But if the scene is not an action scene or if you want it to be more character-based, putting them in on purpose can have the opposite effect: they move the reader closer to the character at the expense of moving away from the plot. But that may be exactly what you want, depending on what sort of story you are trying to tell. Character-based, rather than plot-based. As Stephen King says, the last thing you want to do is ruin a story with plot.

    So, bottom line, they are not necessarily evil, and you do not need to demonize them. They are a tool. You can avoid them, but you can also use them to go more character-based. For instance:

    ‘Dr. Lecter was giving Clarice a hidden clue’ is an authorial statement. No filter word. It’s a ‘factoid’ given to the reader directly from the author. It serves the plot, yet does nothing for characterization regarding the MC. It draws attention to the plot and to the author, and away from the character. My best guess is that Thomas Harris would never phrase a sentence like this, even in a thriller.

    ‘Clarice realized Dr. Lecter was giving her a hidden clue’ is about the MC, and it draws the reader closer to her, and to the thinking inside Clarice’s head. It still moves the needle on plot, just a bit more indirectly. But it is much more character-based, which may be exactly what the author has in mind, to get the character more intimate and closer to the reader. It also makes the author more invisible, which is often a good thing, since the story is about the character and never about the author (hopefully).

    So I think demonizing filter words and abhorring their use might be the wrong way to look at this. Instead, use them as a tool, and avoid using them if you want a different tool. One approach is character-based, the other is plot-based. Simply choose the right tool for the right job, case-by-case, as you write the scenes.

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  5. Great idea! And it’s now even easier. If you use Word 2019 (maybe versions before that?), Ctrl + F brings up that great left column window with all the instances of a word/phrase you enter, displayed per heading, page, or result with the little up down arrows to move through the document. Conveniently, it highlights the find-word/phrase automatically in the text. When you finish making the changes you want you just use the little arrows to continue to next occurrence or backtrack. Microsoft actually did something right. Yay!

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  6. Oh, forgot to mention. This process of editing to cut down on filter words can be challenging, but the more I do it, the more it stimulates my creativity in constructing alternative ways to express what I want. It many cases, I end up streamlining the whole sentence. Where I leave in filter words half the time, is in dialogue. I’ve found that many people in real life tend to express themselves in more general terms. But of course, it depends on the character, the genre, whether it’s book or script, etc. Let what sounds right to you be your guide.
    Valuable website, by the way. Thank you.

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