Filter writing tip

Writing Tip: FILTER Words

by Ruthanne Reid as posted on “The Write Practice

What Are Filter Words?

A filter word puts distance between the reader and your character, filtering that character’s experience. Let’s look at an example to get a better sense:

This was magic school? I stood and stared at it; I thought it seemed to be set up to depress us. I saw the green hill rising from the earth like some kind of cancer, and I could hear the voices of students on the wind, chanting soullessly, as if the wonder and awe of true magic had been whitewashed from their lives.

Not sure what to look for? Here it is with the filter words removed.

This was magic school? It seemed to be set up to depress us. The green hill rose from the earth like some kind of cancer, and the voices of students carried on the wind, chanting soullessly, as if the wonder and awe of true magic had been whitewashed from their lives.

What did I remove? I thought, I saw, I could hear. In other words, I removed anything that had you, the reader, looking at her looking at things, rather than looking at the things she saw.

This is true first-person: being behind the character’s eyes.

How to Spot Your Filter Words, with Examples

Filter words can be difficult to see at first, but once you catch them, it becomes second nature. “I heard the music start up, tinny and spooky and weird,” vs. “The music started up, tinny and spooky and weird.” One is outside, watching him listen; the other is inside his head, hearing it with him.

“I saw the dog, brown and shaggy.” You’re watching the character see the dog. “The dog was brown and shaggy.” Now you’re seeing what the character sees, and there is no space between you and the character.

I’m going to give you one more example from my own work.

Here it is with filter words added:

I watched the box blow apart, double-thick cardboard smacking to the counter. Inside, I saw a tiny, perfect, snow-white dragon.

A dragon. On my kitchen counter. I heard it squeak at me, which I thought could mean absolutely anything, and I watched as it began to preen itself like a cat.

I saw mother-of-pearl scales gleaming all over its ridiculously long, thin neck. I stared at the wee round-bellied body, resting on tiny curved legs and a tail long enough to balance that neck. I noticed its head was a drawn-out diamond, long and narrow, and its snout was so thin that the flare of its nostrils only emphasized the entire disproportionate cuteness of the whole package.

I’d never seen anything so adorable in my life.

And with filter words removed:

The box blew apart, double-thick cardboard smacking to the counter. Inside sat a tiny, perfect, snow-white dragon.

A dragon. On my kitchen counter. It squeaked at me, which could mean absolutely anything, and began to preen itself like a cat.

Mother-of-pearl scales gleamed all over its ridiculously long, thin neck. The wee round-bellied body rested on tiny curved legs and a tail long enough to balance that neck. Its head was a drawn-out diamond, long and narrow, and its snout was so thin that the flare of its nostrils only emphasized the entire disproportionate cuteness of the whole package.

I’d never seen anything so adorable in my life.

The second example gives you Kate’s point of view through her eyes and ears. The first one forces you to watch her seeing and hearing—and takes us away from her experience.

Are Filter Words Ever Okay?

Because I love ya, I will state that there are plenty of valid exceptions. There will be times that your first-person perspective uses those filter words to great effect.

For example, “I see the shelves, and I see the counter, but I don’t see the scissors,” expresses your character’s frustration, which is more important than the counter and shelves he’s seeing. It’s a matter of emphasis and where you want the reader’s thoughts to go.

Filter words can be stylistic, largely tied to voice. I have one character from the deep south, for example, who tends to use them as part of his storytelling: “And then I look over there, and what do I see but that damn fool, makin’ off with my breakfast.”

There will always be times to use filter words, but it’s crucial that you only use them when you’re aware of it, not by accident. If you’re ever in doubt, just ask yourself this question: where do you want your reader’s eyes to be?

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