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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.

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