FILTERING: WHAT IS IT?
The filter is a common fault and often difficult to recognize–although once the principle is grasped, cutting away filters is an easy means to more vivid writing. As a fiction writer you will often be working through “some observing consciousness.” Yet when you step back and ask readers to observe the observer–to look at rather than through the character–you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene. (Source: Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway)
Filtering words are generally words that you add to a sentence when you are trying to describe something that your character is experiencing or thinking. These can be sense words like feel, taste, see, hear, and smell, or variations thereof. But they can also be words like think, seem, and remember.
Writers don’t necessarily have to avoid these words, but they should be aware of the effect that they have on your prose. Rather than describing a sensation outright, you are distancing your narrator (and reader) from the sense that you are describing.
EXAMPLES OF FILTERING
- I heard a noise in the hallway.
- She felt embarrassed when she tripped.
- I saw a light bouncing through the trees.
- I tasted the sour tang of raspberries bursting on my tongue.
- He smelled his teammate’s BO wafting through the locker room.
- She remembered dancing at his wedding.
- I think people should be kinder to one another.
HOW CAN I APPLY THIS?
Read your work to see how many of these filtering words you might be leaning on. Microsoft Word has a great Find and Highlight feature that I love to use when I’m editing. See how you can get rid of these filtering words and take your sentences to the next level by making stronger word choices. Take the above examples, and see how they can be reworked.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: I heard a noise in the hallway.
- DESCRIBE THE SOUND: Heels tapped a staccato rhythm in the hallway.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: She felt embarrassed after she tripped.
- DESCRIBE WHAT THE FEELING LOOKS LIKE: Her cheeks flushed and her shoulders hunched after she tripped.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: I saw a light bouncing through the trees.
- DESCRIBE THE SIGHT: A light bounced through the trees.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: I tasted the sour tang of raspberries bursting on my tongue.
- DESCRIBE THE TASTE: The sour tang of raspberries burst on my tongue.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: He smelled his teammate’s BO wafting through the locker room.
- DESCRIBE THE SMELL: His teammate’s BO wafted through the locker room.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: She remembered dancing at his wedding.
- DESCRIBE THE MEMORY: She had danced at his wedding.
- FILTERING EXAMPLE: I think people should be kinder to one another.
- DESCRIBE THE THOUGHT: People should be kinder to one another.
See what a difference it makes when you get rid of the filter? It’s simply not necessary to use them. By ditching them, you avoid “telling,” your voice is more active, and your pacing is helped along.
The above list is not comprehensive as there are many examples of filtering words. The idea is to be aware of the concept so that you can recognize instances of it happening in your work. Be aware of where you want to place the energy and power in your sentences. Let your observations flow through your characters with immediacy.
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