Monday, October 14, 2013

Ten Writing Tighteners Series: Filters

Photo by Kain Kalju

First, you should know, I originally wrote this as a guest poster on my good friend Lizzy Charles' blog a few months ago, so you may have read some of this, though it has been revised.

Photo by Wendi Dunlap
It's an author’s job to unite the audience with the character in such a way the person with a book in their hands isn’t reading a story about the character, instead they’re living through the character’s point of view. Readers crave this. Writers should help the audience see what the character sees, hear what they hear, and feel—physically and emotionally—what they feel. But they need to do it in such a way the reader experiences it with the character, not as though they are looking in from the other side of a window.

Most writers understand using all five senses to describe their character’s world and experiences makes their work more realistic. After all, readers live every day through their own senses.

It’s the difference between:

Photo by MugurM
Maggie ran from the witch’s flying monkeys one rainy night.


While rain sluiced into her eyes, Maggie stumbled, her legs pumping harder. The witch’s monkeys blocked the street lamp's glow as they closed in.

Both give the same information, but one brings the reader into Maggie’s experience. The first sentence tells, the second shows. Telling the reader what’s happening, but not showing them what the character is going through, leaves the reader separated from the action. Disconnected.

This problem can be solved by the removal of as many filter words from the manuscript as possible. What the heck are filter words? Filter words are the windows, reminding the reader they aren’t really in the action at that moment. Instead, they’re on the outside looking in.

Here are some examples from my book DEVASTATION. (As a note: DEVASTATION has undergone a change in tense, from past to present. For the purpose of this blog, I reverted these passages to past tense.)

 Photo by niseag03
Early version:
A flag whipped in the wind, at least, that’s the sound I heard. As quick as I could blink, a pair of dark wings, the same as the guy in the water had, appeared behind Dad’s back. They flapped a couple of times; I felt their wind brush past me. I felt my jaw go slack.

As it is now:
A flag whipped in the wind and a pair of dark wings, like the ones in my reflection, appeared behind Dad. As they flapped, their breeze stirred the dust and grass at my feet. 

Early Version:
Photo by Allie's.Dad
I decided to just go for it. So I whipped off my t-shirt, trying to not think about it, or I probably would’ve chickened out.

As it is now:
I went to my towel and, with shaky hands, I whipped off my t-shirt before I could chicken out. 

Early version:
I felt his finger trace the top edge of my cami on my back.

As it is now:
... his finger whispered along the upper edge of my top, across my back, leaving a trail of heat imprinted on my flesh. 

 Photo by Toms Bauń£is
Early version:
There below me, in the darkness of the cavern, by the light of a stream of fire spewing forth from its mouth, I saw the dragon.

As it is now:
Below in the darkness, a stream of fire spewing from its mouth, a dragon lumbered into the cavern.

Which examples bring the reader closer to the experience? By cutting heard, feltdecided, and saw, the reader can be part of the action. They’re right there with the character, in the moment.

How does a writer rid their manuscripts of filter words? All they must do is use their word processing program’s search or find function.

Search for these words:

decide, decided (when a character acts the reader will understand it was a decision to do so)
feel, felt
hear, heard
look, looked
realize, realized (SHOW a character realizes something by the experiences the character has, not by TELLING the reader the character realizes it.) 
see, saw
seem, seemed
sound, sounded
think, thought
wonder, wondered (In  my opinion, it would be better to simply show the thoughts of the character, or figure out another way to express this if not showing thoughts.)

Once the words are located, rewriting most sentences is fairly simple. A lot of times, the filter portion can just be deleted, other times it may require a little more creativity, but hey, that's what writers do. Right?

I heard footsteps rushing behind me, but I turned and saw no one there.

Footsteps rushed behind me, but I turned and no one was there.

The audience knows the character heard the sound of footsteps simply because the footsteps are mentioned in the text. Similarly, readers will assume the character saw no one was there, it doesn't have to be spelled out for them. So, unless our character is like Helen Keller, these things will be understood.

However, if the footsteps were felt, instead of heard, then the writer can describe the manner in which that manifests. The same can be said for the character's lack of sight. It's the writer's job to lay out exactly how the character knew no one was there.

Vibrations thumped the soles of my feet; someone was following me. When I turned, hands groping the darkness, there was no one.
Can a writer tell rather than show without using filter words? Sure, but this blog post only deals with filter words. Removing the majority of filters will create tighter prose and a more enjoyable reader experience.

Of course, as with all rules, this one can and/or should be broken in certain circumstances. 

Do you have other filter words you search out and remove from your manuscripts? Share them in the comments and help your fellow writers.

Check back next week. We will take a closer look at Dead-weight Words as the Ten Writing Tighteners Series continues. If you sign up to follow by email, it will come to you automatically (look near the top right of the screen).

I'm working to grow my readership. If you found this post helpful or know others who might, please let your friends and followers know about it. You can share on Facebook or tweet about it. I would really appreciate it, and I would also love for you to join this blog as a follower. Thank you.

Ten Writing Tightener Series includes

1. Filters 10/14/13
2. Dead-weight Words 10/21/13
3. Echoes 10/28/13
4. Sentence Structure Stagnation 11/04/13
5. Redundancy 11/11/13
6. Telling vs. Showing 11/18/13
7. Voice Not Character Appropriate 11/25/13
8. Brevity Blunders 12/09/13
9. Head Hopping 12/16/13
10. Underestimating the Reader 12/23/13


  1. I've actually been searching for posts like this one so I'm ready when I start my edits. Some of the others I've found are, touch/touched, know/knew, watch/watch. I have a bad feeling I use these words a lot...

    1. Heather, thank you so much for stopping in and sharing your words, all great additions to the FILTER word list! Next week, I'll be discussing Dead-weight Words, also asking for your contributions to that list. So I hope you get to swing by again.

      I once told my CP friend, that though edits are hard, I love them, because that's where we polish all those diamonds. I'm sure you'll do fantastic with yours.

  2. Great post! Thanks! It's very helpful. I like that you shared examples of before and after.

  3. Thanks for checking out my post, B.A. Really happy it was helpful to you. Happy editing! :)


Thanks for visiting and commenting! I hope you've enjoyed the blog.