Editing. Is it painful? Yes. Is it necessary? Yes. I’ve been an editor for seven years and counting. I’m still learning about the craft of writing and editing on a daily basis. One thing that’s really helped make my writing stronger is taking out filter words.
What are filter words? You know when you’re reading a story and you just can’t connect to the characters? You want to like the story, but there’s something about it keeping you from experiencing the story with the character.
On Writing by Janet Burroway has a good section on filter words. “Filtering is when the writer forces the reader to look at rather than through the point of view character’s eyes” (Burroway 2010). Deleting these words shows the reader what’s going on instead of telling. They distance the reader from the story. It’s one extra step the reader has to take in order to experience action with the character. Only use filter words when it’s critical to the meaning of a sentence. Here’s a list of filter words I’ve compiled over the years. Look out for these in your manuscript (this is for past and present tense):
- to hear
- to look
- to realize
- to notice
- to feel
- to touch
- to know
- to start
- to sound like
- to seem
- to think
- to see
- to decide
- to watch
- to wonder
- to try
Here are some basic examples. Of course you’ll want to add some flavor with the sentences, but this is just to help you get an idea of how filtering out distance words make a sentence stronger.
With filtering word: The white cat started licking its paws.
Without: The white cat licked its paws.
Why would the cat start to lick its paws? Why not have the cat just lick its paws? Make it immediate. Take that extra step out of the equation.
With filtering words: I heard the woman scream for help.
Without filtering words: “Help me!” the woman screamed.
Why did we have to be told the woman screamed instead of shown? Do a search for these words in your manuscript. Delete them and replace them with more vivid imagery to make it more immediate.
Can you think of any other filter words I can add to my list?