Wednesday 16 October 2019

Writers’ Questions: What are filter words and should I avoid them?

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, but, in the summer of 2020, my own debut novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be released by Atria Books (more on this here). In this series, Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing some advice about the writing process to help fellow writers. Last time, I told you all about showing vs. telling, with some examples to show you the way. This week, we’re talking about filter words, also known as ‘thought verbs’.

What are filter words?

Back in July, I wrote a post in this series about point of view. Simply put, filter words = any unnecessary language that distances the reader from the point of view you have chosen to write your novel in.

Common filter words are verbs that refer to thinking or feeling. I’ve highlighted them in red in the sentences below (all of which are written in a close third person for ease):

Harry glanced out of the window. It was raining, he thought.

Megha looked at her again. She realised it was the girl from the painting.

Declan shivered. He felt cold.

Each of these examples can be reworded to delete the filtering and bring us closer to the character:

Harry glanced out of the window. It was raining.

Megha looked at her again. It was the girl from the painting!

Declan shivered.

In the first instance, there is no reason to insert ‘he thought’ if we are securely in Harry’s point of view. We already know as readers that our entire worldview is filtered through his eyes.

In the second example, the same is true with Megha and her realisation. You can hint at her surprise in other ways, for instance inserting an exclamation.

In my third example, the entire second sentence is unnecessary. People shiver when they’re cold! But if you do want to hammer home the point there are other ways to name the temperature that still avoid the filtering language:

Declan shivered. He moved his toes to stop them going numb.

Declan shivered. Cold crept through his bones.

In the first two examples I gave, we could also bring the point of view even closer by deleting references to where Harry and Megha are glancing/looking (another type of filtering):

The window was misting up. It was raining.

The girl’s coat was red, her eyes were grey. There was something familiar in the shape of her chin. Megha’s heart dropped. It was the girl from the painting!

Are filter words always verbs?

Nouns can also act as filter words, especially when they name the senses.


Uri walked into the kitchen. He was greeted by the smell of coffee.

This example has other issues (did you notice the passive voice?) but the word smell is also acting as a filtering word here. Depending on your writing style, you might consider rewording to something like:

Uri walked into the kitchen. Hot toast on the table, fresh coffee wafting from the pot.

Why are filter words ‘bad’?

As with any writing ‘rule’, there are always exceptions and counter arguments, but there are several reasons why you might want to avoid filtering.

The most important is one I’ve already mentioned. Filtering words make readers feel more distant from your point of view character(s)—a problem if you want us to have an emotional connection with your protagonist(s). In our own heads we just think and feel things without the insertion of clauses like ‘I thought’. So delete the filtering to put readers firmly in another human’s shoes.

Other issues include repeated words and unnecessary wordiness. If you’re revising/editing your manuscript currently and are looking to trim your word count, consider searching for parts of the verbs to think, to see, to feel etc. to shave off words that may be harming your novel vs. helping it.

What writing or publishing topic would you like to see the Secret Victorianist cover next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know, here on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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