Avoid filter words in your writing

View things through a filter

If you’re anything like I am, you probably read a lot of books or blog posts about writing. One thing I rarely see mentioned anywhere are so-called filters, so I thought I’d blog about it today.

Filters have to do with point of view.

What is point of view?

Basically, point of view is the “camera angle” from which we see the action when we read a book. Most romance novels are written in third-person limited POV—we witness everything through the eyes of one single character per scene. It’s called “limited” because we are limited to the mind of one character at a time. We only see, hear, feel, and know what this viewpoint character sees, hears, feels, or knows. You can’t write about things that your character doesn’t know.

You can have more than one POV character in your novel, even if you write in a third-person limited POV. Personally, I think third-person limited with multiple viewpoint characters works best for romances, since it allows you to dip into the heads of both main characters, one at a time.

It’s best to switch POV only at chapter or scene breaks to avoid confusing readers, though. Switching POV in mid-scene is called “head hopping” if you’re writing from a third-person limited POV.

To complicate things even more, third-person POV comes in varying degrees of intimacy—also called narrative distance. Do your readers witness what the characters see, hear, and feel from the outside, or do they inhabit your characters’ minds and experience everything for themselves?

What are filters?

Filters are words that describe the POV character perceiving something or thinking something.

Keep an eye out for verbs such as:

  • Saw
  • Heard
  • Smelled
  • Felt
  • Watched
  • Observed
  • Noticed
  • Realized
  • Knew
  • Wondered

Or, even worse, a variation of these words such as “she could hear,” etc.

Why should you avoid filter words?

You might think that using these filters are a good thing, since you should involve your characters’ senses and dip into their minds and emotions. Well, yes, you should. But if you use filters to do that, you direct your readers’ attention toward the fact that your POV character sees (hears, notices…) something rather than on whatever he or she sees. Instead of experiencing the events in the story themselves, readers are forced to observe the characters experiencing the events. Readers look at your POV character instead of looking through his or her eyes.

That puts unnecessary distance between the reader and the character. Readers no longer experience the story directly.

So my advice would be to avoid filters whenever possible. Just SHOW what your POV character is experiencing instead of TELLING readers that the character is experiencing it. Since we are in the character’s POV, everything you describe is something the character hears, sees, or thinks, so you don’t need to point it out.

Example:

With filters, a paragraph might read like this:

She heard a car door slam shut in front of the house and realized she was in trouble. She could feel her hands grow damp and wondered how she would explain the missing money to her mother.

If you rewrite without the filters, the paragraph changes to:

A car door slammed shut in front of the house. Shit. She was in trouble. Her hands grew damp. How would she explain the missing money to her mother?

As you can probably see, the writing becomes more immediate. We now witness everything directly, without the filter.

Does that mean you should never, ever use a filter word?

No, of course not. There are exceptions for almost every rule in writing. Sometimes, you might want to increase the narrative distance or you want to emphasize the act of hearing/seeing or maybe the filter is critical for the meaning of a sentence.

But always make sure that if you use a filter word, it’s a conscious choice and not just a bad habit. Most of the time, your writing will be richer and your readers more actively involved in the story if you leave out the filters.

Do you have any questions or comments about filters, point of view, or writing in general? Let me know in the comments!

12 thoughts on “Avoid filter words in your writing”

  1. Informative and pertinent post, Sandra. Filter words are so pervasive in today’s writing–I wonder if someone is preaching for them instead of against them. :) Good job.

    BTW, I had a small problem figuring out how to leave a comment. Perhaps you could put the comment box at the bottom of each post–as other blogs do–or else make it clear that one must click on the “No Comments Yet” phrase at the top of the post.

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting, Nann. Is there a section on filters in your editing book too?

      I will talk to my web mistress about the comment button. Thanks!

      Reply
    • Thanks for reading, Nikki. I hope the blog post is helpful for editors too. I directed several authors whose manuscripts I edit toward it already.

      Reply
  2. I’m a beginning writer and I’m struggling with this concept of filters.
    I’ve been re reading a wip that I had collecting dust and I’m seeing a lot of filter usage. I’m understanding what you are saying, but confused as to when it would be alright to use a filter. Is it really a bad thing to be in someones head listening to their thoughts?

    Reply
    • No, of course it’s a good thing to be in someone’s head. But don’t TELL us that we’re in his or her head. Just SHOW by directly presenting the character’s thoughts and observations.

      Reply
  3. Gah these drive me nuts have to weed out “she saw, looked, heard.” This is a problrm in all the older chapters about 30 of them. Am glad the newer ones aren’t like this such a pain to fix. Hope this gets easier over time.

    Reply
    • Luckily, it gets easier with time. Once you get used to it, you will rarely include filter words even in your first draft. And until it comes natural to you, you can always edit them out in the revision stage.

      Reply

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