It’s easy to fall into bad habits with our writing — lazy prose we’ve become so accustomed to that we don’t even notice it, even during the editing process. I had fallen into a really bad habit without even realizing it, and it wasn’t until I read an article on filter words that I had my lightbulb moment.
Filter words, those little words we throw into our text without noticing; those are the words that pull the reader out of your story. They’re unnecessary, yet writers use them all the time.
So, what are filter words?
Here are the ones that stand out to me, although I’m sure there are some I’ve missed.
- to see
- to hear
- to think
- to touch
- to wonder
- to realize
- to watch
- to look
- to seem
- to feel
- to decide
- to sound
- to know
So take for example a scene that includes filter words.
“I felt like something wasn’t right. The street seemed quieter than usual. I couldn’t see the normal buzz of human traffic. I watched a couple of kids scamper past me and my pulse quickened. They weren’t playing tag or laughing like they usually would. These kids were scared. I heard the distant thump of marching feet coming from down the street and decided to head back inside. The idea of hiding behind a locked door seemed the safest choice at that moment.”
Now take out the filter words.
“Something wasn’t right. The street was quiet — the normal buzz of human traffic missing. A couple of kids scampered past me, and my pulse quickened. They weren’t playing tag or laughing like they usually would. These kids were scared. The distant thump of marching feet came from down the street and I headed back inside. Hiding behind a locked door was the safest choice at that moment.”
What do you think? Which paragraph had more impact? Which paragraph pulled you into the story and made you feel as if you were the character?
Because that should be one of your goals as a writer — to write a story that sucks the reader in and makes them feel every emotion your character is experiencing. You want to place them in that scene without them even realizing it…and removing filter words will help you do that.
I’m not saying NEVER use filter words. Sometimes they are appropriate. I even think the final sentence of the second paragraph could possibly read…”Hiding behind a locked door seemed the safest choice at that moment.” That sentence could work just as effectively. The main purpose of this post is to simply remind you that filter words are way too easy to drop into your writing, yet they don’t need to be there.
I personally have so appreciated this wake up call. As soon as I read the article, I skimmed back through my work and noticed so many cases of filter words. I’ve been making a concerted effort to eliminate them from my current work in progress. My writing is stronger because of it.