Filter Words

Filler Words, Sentence Adverbs, and Filter Words

Part 3 of 3: Filter words

This is the third in a quick series of posts on filler words and filter words, with sentence adverbs wedged in between for good measure. The first post discussed filler words.

Last time I wrote about sentence adverbs. I also offered three versions of the same text, edited to different degrees of what I referred to as rigidity (or “rigorousness” if you prefer), to show how using a different style or standard of editing leads to very different texts. There are many, many ways those passages could have been edited, and if I went back and looked at them again, the end result might be slightly different each time. There is no strictly right or wrong way to arrange most collections of words and there’s certainly no perfect way (although there are good and bad, and better and worse, ways).

Of course, the standards I used aren’t really discrete editing levels, even though I referred to them that way. They’re better compared to positions on a continuous slider, or points on a spectrum. It might be more accurate to think of this as a scale of “prose tightness,” which runs from 0 to 99, with raw, casual, unedited speech at 0 and ideal, tight academic text at 99. The examples would fall around 35 for “blog conversational,” 50 for “formal conversational,” and 85 for “rigorous.”

Filter Words

What’s the difference between a filler word and a filter word?

They overlap in function, but on average have two different effects on your prose. Filler words take up space and expand things that don’t need to be expanded.

Filter words can also expand, but their negative power comes in another way. Filter words serve to push your reader out of the story: they get in between the reader and the action. They run some aspect of the story—most often the emotional impact—through a verbal filter that takes away from what the author is trying to achieve. That’s why they’re called “filter words.”

What does that mean and what does this look like in practice? We’ve just gotten past the “halloweeny” season, so let’s use a spooky example:

I felt what appeared to be the fingers of a cold hand come to rest on my neck. Then I noticed that they were beginning to move.

Those aren’t the finest sentences ever written, but they serve our purpose and they use some obvious filters: felt, appeared, noticed. Those words act as filters between the reader and the action. Let’s cut those filters and rewrite as needed:

The fingers of a cold hand came to rest on my neck. They began to move.

Better? Most people would say so. You’ll notice also that (by word count) the improved version is 40% shorter. Recall that I said filters are also usually filler: not only do they get in the way of the story, they also pad out the writing for no good reason. This example is in first person, and I cut those references (“I”) out, too. Writers should remember that: the reader already knows who is doing the talking, the narrative “I.” Don’t waste words by continuously reminding them.

So you want a list of filter words to start with? Here are some of the common ones:

  • seem
  • appear
  • think
  • wonder
  • believe
  • decide
  • realize
  • understand
  • feel
  • see
  • hear
  • touch
  • look
  • watch
  • notice
  • recognize
  • note
  • notice

These are all verbs, and they bunch up in certain categories: thinking, experiencing, sensing (all three of which can qualify as filter words themselves). I don’t have any specific favorite sites to direct you to for more information on filter words (or longer lists). Plug the phrase into Google and poke around on your own—there are many commentaries out there. If you find one that you especially like, mention it below in a comment.

Remember to exercise caution in your quest to eradicate filter words. As with fillers, filters have their place and their uses. They are sometimes useful when a story is in third person, and an author wants to show a character’s state of mind, or has a need to express uncertainty (either overtly or more slyly). When a story is being told in first person, on the other hand, filter words are hazardous. They can slow and confuse, and they waste as much space as filler words. If the point of view distinction isn’t obvious to you, think about it for a moment. If a character is telling the tale directly (first person), why would they comment about their own state of mind or their experiences in the moment through filters? Perhaps if your narrator is a narcissist, but not in many other situations.

Since I’ve brought up point of view, let’s touch on another concern: in the same way that filters are more of a problem with first person than third, filters are also more trouble when a story is told in present tense versus past. Keep that in mind as it relates to your storytelling choices.

When you reach the point in revision that you start purging filter words, it also helps to remain aware of the age-old advice to show don’t tell: “Jim was angry” tells, but “Jim’s lips pressed tightly together and his entire arm twitched as his hand squeezed into a fist” shows. The first uses fewer words but would be much less successful in many storytelling situations.

Filter words are a problem in fiction but aren’t (usually!) as much of a concern in non-fiction. Consider a first-person memoir, however, and you can easily imagine how the careless use of filters can undermine a strong narrative.

That’s the first time I’ve stringed together a series of posts in quite awhile—and I’m exhausted! I hope you learned something or, at the very least, these posts didn’t make you dumber.

= = = = =

I can hardly believe that we’re already back around to that time of year: Word of the Year (WOTY) candidates should start turning up any day. Rest assured, I’ll review them all, so that you won’t have to. You can thank me later. Check back in early December for the beginning of that roundup.

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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