Back in November, Wendy Higgins (author of the Sweet Trilogy) wrote a blog post titled, “My Unfortunate Writing Side Effect.” In the post she shared how being a writer made it hard to read for pleasure. Instead of letting a book captivate her, she found herself wanting “to change lines or cross out words.” The post struck me because lately I’ve been feeling the same way. The cause of my reading slump? Filter words.
When I first started seriously writing I had no clue what filters were. I wrote characters seeing and feeling things in a very mundane way. I was new. I thought this was the way you were supposed to write. Then I got my first critique. It was a bloody slaughter. While the writer was kind in their presentation, their message was clear – your writing needs help. My biggest problem? My use of filter words. Everywhere.
If you’re new to writing you may ask, “What is a filter?” Let me share by using some examples from my early writing:
“I noticed he had blue eyes and dark hair.”
“I watched as he removed the shovel from the ground.”
See a pattern? Filters direct the reader to see what the character is doing instead of allowing the reader to infer what is happening. With filters you are essentially saying, “Hey reader, take note. I’m now going to tell you what the main character is seeing, thinking or feeling.”
Some readers can breeze over this, but when I read a story littered with filters it pulls me out of the narrative. Every. Single. Time.
Now to be honest, I never noticed filters in my writing until someone pointed it out. I tried my best to avoid them, but alas it kept happening. Frustrated, I couldn’t figure a way around the issue until I read this great piece on “thought verbs” from Chuck Palahniuk. The light bulb finally ignited. As a writer, I needed to crawl inside the head of my character and share what he/she was feeling. The trick? Don’t let the reader know I was doing it.
So how do you get around filters? Well, it’s not easy. It takes time and a lot of practice to perfect your craft. But if you keep working on it, you slowly learn how to present your narrative without them.
Let’s look at the examples from above:
“I noticed he had dark hair.”
How can you lose the filter but still convey your message? Try adding movement.
“Adam focused on removing the bolt from the tire. Cranking and pulling on the wrench, a single black hair fell across his forehead.”
Do we now know the character has black hair? Yes, but in a way that keeps us in the narrative. You’re not shouting, “Hey look, this guy has black hair” rather using action to allow for the description.
What about the next example?
“I watched as he shoveled soil from the ground.”
By removing the “I watched” you can still pull the reader into the scene by using description.
“The sharp end of the shovel dug into the soil. With brisk movements, one pull after the other, he lifted the wet earth from its resting place.”
Does the reader know the character is shoveling? Yes-but without you directly telling them.
In many cases I think of filters like adverbs. You don’t want to use them, but sometimes they are necessary. And that’s okay. The key here is to use your craft to pull the reader into the narrative. Share critical information without actually saying to them, “Look, I need you to pay attention to this detail.”
Filters are the bane of my existence. I still overuse them in my writing, but I’m hyper aware of it. They come out in herds when I write my first draft. It’s something I constantly struggle with and work at. Recognizing them in my writing is half the battle. Once I see them, I try to use more active verbs, better descriptors. Every time I do, I make my manuscript that much stronger.
What about you? How do you weed out filter words in your writing? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.