Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Filter Words




Are you familiar with filter words? Not filler words. Filter words. These are the words that filter the reader’s experience through a character’s point of view. During the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop that I attended in March, we talked about filter words. The term, apparently, comes from Janet Burroway, a novelist who co-wrote Writing Fiction : A Guide to Narrative Craft, which is, according to its description, “The most widely used and respected text in its field.”

Filter words include see, hear, feel, think, realize, watch, look, seem, know, and sound (to list a sampling). Although they can have their proper place in writing, they can also put distance between a character and the detail the writer wishes to present. For example, I see the horse run from the field into the barn without the filter words would read The horse runs from the field into the barn. Which sentence is more clean and sleek? Which sentence do you prefer?
I feel the cold wind bite into my neck would transform into The cold wind bites into my neck.

Filter words can tell a reader what is happening rather than letting the reader experience the scene. They can put distance between the reader and the character’s experiences. And we know this isn’t a good thing.

Have you read about or heard about filter words? What are your thoughts about them? Have you read or heard about Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French? Do tell! : ) 


62 comments:

  1. I have heard that those words shouldn't be used (didn't realize the long list though!), but didn't know they were called filter words. Will have to go through my ms and make sure I see if I need to switch it up! THanks for the helpful post!

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  2. Oooh, I haven't heard this term before! But I've learned to look for them. Feel/felt, see/saw are on my list of slash & burn words. The sentences are much stronger without them.

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    1. "Slash and burn" is the perfect revising phrase for these, Julie!

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  3. I've heard the term, though not until recently. As a former English teacher, I've done a lot of editing and critiquing. A lot of writers have trouble telling when they are using those verbs as filters and when they aren't. I advise writers to look for the primary action they want to convey in the sentence. If the primary action in the sentence is the seeing/feeling/thinking, etc., then that verb is the main verb and not a filter. However, when the action the writer wants to convey is actually something else -- for instance, in your first example, the primary action is the horse running -- then those verbs are being used as unnecessary filters.

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  4. I've never heard it called filter words, but it's an apt description and maybe will make it easier to identify those pesky little things. Thanks!

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    1. The term was new to me, too, Tricia. And pesky is right!

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  5. I know of these words but I never knew they had a terminology! They're an easy thing to do without realising! Take care
    x

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  6. I have not read this book about which you speak. As for the filter words, I do my best to cut them and go direct, but it's not always easy to spot them. The big challenge for many authors, especially new ones, is knowing when to use them and when not to use them. And now, I will once again add you to 'blogs I follow', because blogger is up to its old tricks again....

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    1. Blogger can be so cranky. Thanks for the re-follow. ; )

      I haven't read Writing Fiction, either, but after the workshop, I ordered it.

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  7. Great post! I am so guilty of using filter words especially in first drafts. Would you recommend Janet Burroway's book?

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    1. Thanks, Shannon! I haven't read Janet Burroway's book, yet. After all the rave reviews by the teachers and mentors at the Highlights workshop, though, I will be reading it. Soon.

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  8. yes i have thought of this and try to limit them

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  9. I know about filter words. I'm pretty good at spotting them on edits, but some manage to creep through.

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    1. Exactly my dilemma, too, Carol--some creep through.

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  10. I think we all use our share of filler words. Taking one pass near the end of the final draft is so worth it--it is amazing how examining each sentence can really strengthen and tighten, and chop down the Word Count!

    Angela

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    1. So true, Angela. I also find that taking a break from the manuscript before that final pass helps a lot.

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  11. Guilty! I've heard of them, and have been trying to delete them from my manuscript/s. Interesting that they add a sense of distance. Good advice just to let the reader experience the scene without those filter words!

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  12. That's exactly what I took away from the discussion about these filter words at the writing retreat, Carol.

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  13. Over the years, I have learned to filter out the filter words. It's unneeded. Thanks for this post with great examples.

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  14. What a great retreat you attended. Thanks for this post. Good advice and tips.

    Nas

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  15. I recently went through my wip, looking for these words. Some I couldn't get rid of, but many I could. :D

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    1. Its true that at times these words serve a distinct purpose and work, Stina. At least you deleted some. ; )

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  16. I usually filter out the filter words with an edit check during revision. Those little devil words sneak in even when I'm trying NOT to use them. I didn't know they had a category name, so thanks for sharing what you learned at the conference.

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  17. I haven't heard those words referred to as filter words till now so now I feel a little bit smarter this morning. ;) Great post and thanks for the book recommendation. I'm putting that book on my list of writing books to read this year.

    And thanks for stopping by my blog! I'm so glad to have found your blog now too!

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    1. Welcome, Leslie! Thanks for coming over and commenting.

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  18. Great! It's tough even when you know better. I always catch a few of these on revision. They are the easiest cut to make though! :D

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    1. So true, Lisa. And it's kind of satisfying to delete the little buggers.

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  19. Nicely put, Cynthia. Without filter words, the scene is often more alive and visual. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

    Joylene Nowell Butler, Author

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  20. Haven't heard about the book, but in the workshop that I teach, I constantly remind people that if I know I'm in a particular character's head, there is no need for the writer to tell me the character sees/hears/feels. I'm going to assume all of that once I know whose head I'm in.

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    1. Great point, J.L. I bet that's a great workshop.

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  21. Yup, I own Janet Burroway's book -- probably an older edition -- and I talk to my students about filter words. Excellent topic. :)

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    1. Ah, I'd love to know your opinion about her book, Marcia.

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  22. So when (other that when the word is the main verb) is it okay to use a filter word? Or is it?

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  23. Unless the verb describes the main action in the sentence, it is as risk of being a filter word. I would analyze the sentence to see if it could be eliminated to make the sentence more crisp and clear.

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  24. I'm all too familiar with filter words. I use them to death in my first drafts, then I have to go through and delete them all, lol.

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    1. I do the same, Lynda. I just can't think about them as I carve out that first draft.

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  25. I have heard of filter words and must admit I tend to want to keep a few - depending on whether or not my text is written in first, or second person. I have not heard of the book you mentioned, but I have already written down the author and title. It is now on my "to be read" list! Thanks, Cynthia.

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    1. You are most welcome, Victoria. And I think we each have to make the decisions that we believe work best for our manuscripts.

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  26. Awesome post! The filter words are more telling words than showing. I find that sometimes I tell in one sentence and show in the next. So when I edit I take out the tell sentence.

    Don't you love the Highlight's Foundation!

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    1. Thanks, Sharon! Wrestling with the telling versus the showing never seems to end. And yes, I am a huge fan of the Highlights Foundation. What a great place and organization.

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  27. I have gotten much better at filtering out the filter words. It's true, they do throw up a subtle barrier between the reader and the character's experience. Cool post.

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    1. Thanks, Leslie! "A subtle barrier" is the perfect was to describe filter words, I think.

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  28. I used to rely on filter words a lot, but I've gotten better at editing them out. The revised sentences are so much better.

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    1. Me, too, Medeia, but I still have to look for them. They're sneaky.

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  29. I love that Burroway book. My copy is highlighted to death and dog-eared. Learning about filter words was such an eye-opener to me. My favorite filter word was "feel" and "see." The writing is so much stronger without them.

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    1. Those are two of my pet filter words, as well, Karen. And I'm glad to read that you loved the Burroway book.

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  30. Great explanation. I'm forever removing those words from my writing!

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  31. I'm very, very familiar with fillers... A large proportion of my editing is getting rid of them - and is accompanied by me kicking myself for writing it in the first place!

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    1. It is frustrating how they sneak in, isn't it Hayley? But at least you catch them. Thanks for stopping by and following.

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  32. I have heard of filter words before and I thought I was pretty good at keeping them under control (see, hear, look always jump out at me.) But a recent critique came back to me with an embarrassing number of uses of "feel" highlighted. Now that they've been pointed out to me, I can't believe I hadn't noticed them. Thanks so much for providing the more extensive list of filter words. I've copied it onto a neon yellow post-it note and stuck it to my monitor! And I'm jotting down the title of that book, as well.

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    1. "Feel" is one of my favorites, too, Ruth. I'm so glad this post was helpful to you. : )

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