Filter Words - How to Reduce your Word Count and Tighten up your Prose
One super simple way to tighten up your prose is to watch out for filter words and phrases.
What do I mean by filtering?
‘Filter words’ refers to unnecessary verbs relating to a character’s perception (saw, heard, noticed, wondered, etc.), often used by beginner writers without their even noticing.
They might seem harmless enough, but overuse can put up barriers between the reader and the story by reminding us that there is a narrator (i.e. you, the author) ‘filtering’ the character’s experience.
This can prevent the reader from fully engaging in the narrative and identifying with the POV character. Filter verbs can create a less immersive reading experience and often result in falling afoul of that sacred and well-known writer’s commandment Show Don’t Tell.
If you find you veer towards overwriting, then cutting filter verbs can be a simple and relatively painless way to reduce your wordcount.
Some common examples of filter verbs
Let’s look at an example
Here’s a short passage I just wrote with the filter words in red:
Carla sat on the balcony, feeling the welcome warmth of her coffee cup spreading through her fingers. She watched as the sun rose in the distance. She saw the postman approach the house and waved, as was her morning ritual. She heard the tell-tale drop of the day’s letters reaching the doormat and sighed, as she realised she’d forgotten to lock the door to the kitchen. On cue, she heard her dog, Trixie, begin to bark aggressively.
Here is the same passage reworked to remove the filter words:
Carla sat on the balcony, the welcome warmth from her coffee cup spreading through her fingers as the sun rose in the distance. She waved at the approaching postman, as was her morning ritual. At the tell-tale drop of the day’s letters on the doormat, she sighed; she’d forgotten to lock the door to the kitchen. On cue, her dog, Trixie, barked aggressively.
Hopefully you noticed the difference between the two passages.
In the first, there’s an odd sense of detachment, as though we are being told the story through the medium of a narrator, rather than directly by the character. Every filter word is a reminder that you are not in the story, you are being told the story.
What to do about them
The good news is that most of the time removing filter words is a pretty easy fix, if a laborious one.
Simply open the 'find' function in your writing software to search for the filter words listed above and any others that you notice yourself using over and again in your writing. Then, it’s often just a case of deleting the offending verbs or a minor recast (see above example).
When filter words aren’t a problem
You won’t be able to remove all the filter words from your novel, and nor should you aim to. There will be times where they are necessary for the meaning of a sentence or add to the mood and voice of your writing.
The key is to use them consciously rather than out of habit.
Do you find yourself using filter words in your writing? Have you any more to add to my list? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
Melanie Kirk is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader and an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). If you are interested in her editing services, you can get in touch with her at www.melaniekirkeditor.com or connect with her on Twitter @MelanieJEditor