Skip to main content

Filtering things

I apologise in advance of my rant. Feel free to have a cuppa, go and vote (if you're in the UK), read a book, whatever, and completely ignore me.

My long-suffering critique partners will assert that if there is one thing bound to annoy every writing gene I have on my radar, it's filter words. But, generous soul that I am, I can tolerate them in critiques - that's why we go through the hell of such matters, after all - and in my own first drafts. But when I read published books absolutely full of them, I get a rant on.

Now, let's get this out of the way. I know there is, sometimes, a place for filter words. If you want to keep the reader distant from the character, they're a tool for that. If you want to ape an older style, yes to keeping them in (remember, omnipresent narrators used to be the norm). And if you want to write in omnipresent, filter away.

But! If you want to write a book with close character interventions that will pull a reader into the character, they're your enemy. And, since that's the kind of book I like to read, it's made my spidey sense for filtering very high.

So, what are filter words? I first came across them described as veil words - words that put a barrier between the reader and the character experience. They're also telling words, rather than showing, so if you can ditch them you'll move towards a show rather than a tell in a lot of cases.

Let's try an example.

Sally, my eponymous hero-dog, has just left the house to go on her walk.

'Sally steps out of the door. She feels the wind through her fur. She sees her owner getting the leash and is excited, jumping up and woofing. The gate opens and she sees the driveway beyond, and smells the scents coming from the garden. She is so excited.' (In real life this is where Sally nearly takes me off my feet and drags me down the road.)

That's full of filter words - feels, sees, smells. Other offenders include hears and thinks and wonders. All are evil.

Let's try that passage without filtering.

'Sally steps out of the door. A strong wind ruffles her fur. Her leash is lifted down, exciting her. She jumps and woofs. Beyond the gate, the driveway is full of garden smells, further exciting her. She drags her owner down the drive, into the street, and halfway into town.'

Now, I'm not arguing that passage is exciting. I doubt it'd pass the 'furthers the plot, character or world' test (unless the owner gets tugged to the feet of the handsome stranger and that's your story). But the second is closer to Sally. I could improve on that second, adding details of what she smells, of the strength of the wind, of the rattling of the leash. The first, to me (and this is my rant) is dreary. It is a list.

How to remove the evil that is a filter word.

1. Control+H is your friend. I use filter words. My first drafts are littered with them. I wince when I edit 1st drafts towards something usable. I do catch most of my filters in that edit, but some always escape. Which is why at some point I do a search for the more common filter words, ask myself did they survive because they should (Abendau was murder for that, with all the psi powers and trying to describe what really was a distant feeling), either in what they achieve or in accuracy. (If I touch something with my finger, I do feel it. Although I'd argue the descriptor could still be made somewhat stronger.)

2. When you find one, think. How can you remove it. Especially if you have one that 'tells' rather than 'shows', simply removing it might not work.

'He saw a small courtyard' remains pretty drab when turned into 'The small courtyard'. Make it work. Make the senses happen. Instead of it being a small courtyard and nothing more, extend that. A herb-filled courtyard sends a different image from a weed-strewn one, or a bare one. Or indeed, one with a 'no ball-games' sign.

Filtering is lazy writing. It's a way of moving through the scene without having to do too much work. As such, learning to do without them is a great way to work at improving your writing and making it more immediate.

3. I mentioned lists above. If you write a passage and it feels like a list, check for filter words. They're sometimes to the cause.

'Sally (who is delighted with the attention, by the way, and would like the inclusion of a nice steak in her story) saw her dinner coming. It was a big steak, dripping blood. It smelled so good. Her stomach growled as the dish was put in front of her, and she ate. It tasted fabulous.'

This is all for the editing stage, and, of course, lists can be caused by all sorts of things including, but not limited to, 'telling', and sentence construction being too limited (which the dearth of nice useful things like semi colons and colons tends to make more pronounced.) But there are ways to make that passage about the steak work harder.

4. Get a beta reader who has a nose for filter words. I suspect most of my regular crit partners check their extract for filters before sending to me as there really is nothing more soul destroying than receiving the same feedback each time. I have a crit partner who is very sensitive to point of view switches and has trained me to stop being lazy and using them. If you have a weakness in your writing, crit groups can be great for addressing them.

5. Enjoy the richness that will come. Filters remove a lot of the fun of description. They're boring to write (again - just me, this is my rant. Feel free to love and embrace your own filters). They're drab. But being Sally, smelling that steak, seeing the way the steam rises from it, biting into it and its hot and its soft and it gets swallowed so that Sally's stomach fills and is warm. That's fun writing.

Anyhow, there you go. A rare how-to-write post rant. Normal sedate service resumed next week.


Just to say, I'm at a number of events with the Belfast book festival over the next week or two:

Sat 10th at 2 pm I'm talking with debut author J D Fennell at Waterstones in Belfast. I'm currently racing through his enjoyable and fresh YA thriller, 'Sleepers', and am looking forward to meeting with him and chatting about it.

Friday 16th at 5.30 I'm at the Crescent Arts chatting with Naomi Foyle. I'm really loving 'Astra', the first book of her Gaia Chronicles, and am exciting to be talking with her. We'll be reading from our work and talking about some of the shared themes and the places that have inspired us, plus taking any questions put to us. It should be a good night.

Lastly, on Saturday 17th I'm back at the Crescent Arts joining a whole range of women readers from Women Aloud. There will be poetry, fiction, short work, YA work and me with a creepy little reading from Waters and the Wild. There'll also be a load of books for sale from the readers and a chance to pick up the odd gem or two.

It would be lovely to see people there!