filter words blog post image

One amazing benefit of writing in first person or third person limited point of view is the ability to bring readers right into a specific character’s thoughts and experiences.

When done right, this creates the illusion that the reader is right there in the story. Done wrong, and the reader will feel as though they’re sitting on the sidelines.

A simple way to combat this? Cut filter words from your writing!

What Are Filter Words?

Filter words are extra words, usually placed at the beginning of a sentence, that filter the scene through a character. Like weasel words and crutch words, filter words tend to make writing weaker.

Take a look at this filtered sentence:

Sam heard the rumble of thunder in the distance.

In this sentence, “heard” is the filter word, and Sam is the character we’re filtering through.

Cut them both and the sentence becomes:

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

Filter words subtly tell the reader to look at the character, not through them. Think of it like the difference between watching the recording of a play versus being there in the audience.

Every filter word in your story reminds the reader they’re not right there in the audience, that your story is just words on a page.

Of course, every reader knows it’s just a story, but the illusion of experiencing it, getting lost in the pages, and losing track of time, can be very satisfying.

Example of Filter Words in Action

Let’s look at a longer example of filtered writing:

John heard the door click and looked up from his paperwork to see his assistant escort the client in. Sarah, his client, looked like a young woman and he knew she was barely out of her teens.

When he stood up to greet her with a welcoming smile, he noted the way she took a step back and glanced at his hands before meeting his gaze. He felt a sinking feeling as he wondered if she was checking for a weapon. He realized this one would need more healing than he’d been told.

Without knowing what filter words are, this might have seemed fine. Something might seem a bit off or awkward, but fine nonetheless.

Let’s look at that same example, but this time with the filters cut:

The door clicked and John looked up from his paperwork as his assistant escorted the client in. Sarah, his client, was a young woman, barely out of her teens.

When he stood up to greet her with a welcoming smile, she took a step back and glanced at his hands before meeting his gaze. His heart sunk. Was she checking for a weapon? This one would need more healing than he’d been told.

Much better, right? And notice how no part of the scene was cut, just the way it was filtered through John.

A List of Filter Words

Filter words are any words that filter the scene through a character, but here is a list of the most common ones with quick examples. These are in past tense, so remember to also check for their present tense equivalent (saw/see, heard/hear).

You can download this list of filter words to easily search, find, and replace them in your documents.

  • Saw
    • Filtered: He saw the man take out a gun.
    • Unfiltered: The man took out a gun.
  • Heard
    • Filtered: He heard Sally call to him just as he closed the door.
    • Unfiltered: Sally called to him just as he closed the door.
  • Thought
    • Filtered: She thought the room smelt strange, almost sour.
    • Unfiltered: The room smelt strange, almost sour.
  • Wondered
    • Filtered: She wondered if he’d seen her.
    • Unfiltered: Had he seen her?
  • Seemed
    • Filtered: He seemed angry when he entered the room.
    • Unfiltered: He stormed into the room.
  • Decided
    • Filtered: She decided to take the shortcut to school.
    • Unfiltered: She took the shortcut to school.
  • Knew
    • Filtered: He knew she’d never take him back.
    • Unfiltered: She’d never take him back.
  • Felt
    • Filtered: He felt a bead of sweat drip down his back.
    • Unfiltered: A bead of sweat dripped down his back.
  • Gave
    • Filtered: I gave her a hug before I left.
    • Unfiltered: I hugged her before I left.
  • Looked
    • Filtered: She looked like she was going to faint.
    • Unfiltered: She swayed, putting a hand to the wall to steady herself.
  • Noticed
    • Filtered: She noticed the way he tapped his fingers on the desk.
    • Unfiltered: He tapped his fingers on the desk.
  • Realized
    • Filtered: He realized he’d never truly known his parents.
    • Unfiltered: He’d never truly known his parents.
  • Watched
    • Filtered: I watched as the girls danced, oblivious to the world around them.
    • Unfiltered: The girls danced, oblivious to the world around them.
  • Could (often accompanied by another filter)
    • Filtered: He could see the sun setting below the horizon.
    • Unfiltered: The sun set below the horizon.
    • Filtered: She could sense the man was behind her.
    • Unfiltered: She sensed the man was behind her.
  • Noted
    • Filtered: She noted Jasmine’s new perfume.
    • Unfiltered: Jasmine was wearing a new perfume.
  • Chose
    • Filtered: I chose to ignore my little brother.
    • Unfiltered: I ignored my little brother.
  • Experienced
    • Filtered: She experienced the rain pattering gently against her face.
    • Unfiltered: The rain pattered gently against her face.
  • Remembered
    • Filtered: Amanda remembered seeing Randy at the mall last week.
    • Unfiltered: Amanda had seen Randy at the mall last week.
  • Sounded
    • Filtered: It sounded like a good idea.
    • Unfiltered: It was a good idea.
  • To be able to
    • Filtered: He was able to get to class on time.
    • Unfiltered: He got to class on time.

These are the most easily recognizable, but other words can be used to filter the experience through the character when it’s really not needed.

For example:

My little sister reached for the toy I held in my hands.

We already know the protagonist is holding the toy since it’s in their hands, so not only is the filter unnecessary, but it’s redundant.

Filter Word Exceptions

Sometimes it’s impossible to remove a filter word, and that’s okay, but it’s always good to try. If you do, you might realize it wasn’t the exception you thought it was and end up finding a much better way to write it.

Now let’s look at the two primary reasons to keep a filter word.

1. When it’s necessary to the meaning of the sentence.

He wished he could go back to those warm summer days when he’d sat on the back steps and watched her dance among the flowers.

Without the filter, we’d have to rephrase it like this:

He wished he could go back to those warm summer days when he’d sat on the back steps as she’d danced among the flowers.

It’s similar, but it loses the meaning of his attention being focused on her.

2. If experiencing something is more important than the sensation itself.

He’d survived the fall. Perhaps not entirely in one piece, but he could still feel the muddy grass under his back and the pelting rain on his face. He was alive.

In this case, the sensations are less important than the fact he can still feel.

Without the filter, we’d have to rephrase it like this:

He’d survived the fall, though perhaps not entirely in one piece. He lay in the muddy grass as the rain pelted his face. He was alive.

Again, it’s similar, but it loses the meaning of him being relieved because he can feel those things.

And lastly, keep in mind that when you cut a filter word, you’ll often have to rewrite the sentence a bit. Don’t let the excuse, “But if I take it out, the sentence is awkward!” tempt you into keeping it. The filter word must significantly add to the meaning of the sentence to be counted as an exception.

How to Find Filter Words

Now that you know what filter words are, there are several ways you can go about finding them.

1: Keep an eye out for them while you edit and revise your writing.

2: Search for each word on the list above through your word processor’s Search function.

3: Use Find & Replace to highlight them all.

This third option is specifically for Microsoft Word. The purpose is to highlight each filter word from the list so they’re easier to spot while editing.

Let’s take a look at how to use this helpful tool:

Step 1: Open the Find & Replace function.

It can be found on the Home tab on the far right of the ribbon, or can be accessed with a keyboard shortcut. (Ctrl + H on Windows, Cmd + H on Mac.)

How to Find Filter Words Step 1 Image

Step 2: Type a word from the list above into the “Find what:” section, and ^& into the “Replace with:” section.

This will replace every occurrence of that word with the word of your choice. Of course, this is useless to us as is, so let’s add a bit more.

How to Find Filter Words Step 2 Image

Note: You could also type the same word into the “Replace with:” section, but if you use ^& instead, then no matter what word is in the “Find what:” section, it’ll be replaced by itself without you needing to change the bottom one every time as well.

Step 3: Click the “More >>” button and check the box for “Find whole words only”.

This will make sure it’s only finding the exact same word, and not also finding those letters in another word. For example, if the word is “saw” it will only search for that, and not other words like “jigsaw”.

How to Find Filter Words Step 3 Image

Step 4: Place your cursor inside the “Replace with:” section (to make sure that is the one changed). Then click on “Format” and then “Highlight”.

This will make all words that are replaced become highlighted in your selected color (defaulted to yellow).

How to Find Filter Words Step 4 Image

Step 5: Now with everything selected correctly, click “Replace All”.

This will go through and highlight all of that specific filter word. It’s a bit time-consuming to do that with all on the list (both past and present tense) but it makes those filter words stand out while doing an editing pass.

How to Find Filter Words Step 5 Image

As you can see in this example, it also highlighted the first “looked” we kept previously. This “looked” is an exception filter word. As with the “watched” exception example, this filter is necessary to know John didn’t ignore the assistant and client.

This is just a reminder to look at every filter word and what it’s doing in its respective passage.

Filter Words in Your First Draft

When writing the first draft of any project, give yourself permission to write filter words. If you try to eliminate them before they’ve even made it to the page, most likely you’ll only suffocate your creativity. Just write. You can deal with filter words later in the editing stage.

And as is true with most skills, improvement comes with practice. The more you work on rewriting sentences to cut filter words, the less filter words you’ll have the next time you draft.

If you have any tricks you use to find and cut filter words, let us know in the comments below!

 

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