Writing

How to Avoid Unnecessary Filter Words in Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 5, 2020 • 3 min read

Writing in the first-person point of view is a great way for first-time writers to enter into a character’s head, but many new writers tend to overuse so-called “filter words” when writing from this perspective. Whether you are writing your first short story or the sequel to a bestseller, removing filter words from your work can help bring your readers closer to your narrator and make your action pop off the page.

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What Are Filter Words?

Filter words are extra words that put distance between readers and a character’s experience. They are usually explanatory words that remove a reader from the action by describing a character’s thought process or action in an explanatory way. As an example, in the sentence, “I hear the engine rumbling,” you could eliminate the filter words “I hear” and simply write, “The engine rumbles.” Filter words pop up in both third-person and first-person narratives, and they take away the potency and immediacy that first-person narration affords an author. Eliminating filter words can help you show instead of telling.

An Example of Filter Words in Writing

There is no definitive list of filter words for writers to consult because what makes a word a filter word varies entirely based on context. Here’s a sample passage from a first-person story that has some common filter words included:

I realized that the older boy was toying with me. I watched as he overturned my backpack. I stared helplessly as a box filled with colored pencils, post-it notes, and bookmarks clattered onto the floor. A creased paperback of Jane Eyre and a Sherlock Holmes collection tumbled out after them. I thought I saw a sneer creep across his lips and watched as he narrowed his eyes on the new calculator I held in my hands.

Here is the same passage with the filter words omitted:

The older boy was toying with me. He overturned my backpack, and a box filled with colored pencils, post-it notes and bookmarks clattered onto the floor. A creased paperback of Jane Eyre and a Sherlock Holmes collection tumbled out after them. A sneer crept across his lips and he narrowed his eyes on the new calculator in my hands.

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Why Avoid Filter Words?

If you’re taking a stab at first-person writing, you’ll notice that your writing has more drive and immediacy when you edit it down to its most essential parts. Filter words aren’t just something to be aware of when dealing with narration in pieces of fiction. Filter words can creep into any sort of writing, including non-fiction. There are instances when filter words might be necessary, and including a few won’t spoil your whole piece, but moving towards more economic prose and dynamic first-person narration will generally improve your writing.

First-person narratives like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville use the first-person perspective to align the reader’s experience with a character’s. These writers limit their filler words when writing in first-person point of view in order to place the reader directly into the character’s shoes and limit the distance between the reader and POV character.

How to Eliminate Filter Words From Your Writing

There are a variety of techniques to help you avoid using filter words that place distance between your first-person narrator and the reader. Here are a few tips for identifying filter words and omitting them from your work:

  1. Keep your sentences tight. A good rule of thumb to follow is to avoid extraneous words that don’t alter your character’s point. Filter words are oftentimes redundant and unnecessary explanations of your character’s thought process and actions. Trust that your readers will be able to keep up with your character without the inclusion of these extra words.
  2. Use the active voice. Writers consider passive voice bad practice because it makes writing less active and dynamic. Passive voice also often forces you to include filter words that separate your character from the reader.
  3. Look for verbs following ‘I.’ Oftentimes filter words will follow the word ‘I’ in lines written in your character’s voice—“I hear,” “I feel,” etc. If you’re writing from the perspective of a viewpoint character, keep an eye out for verbs immediately following the word ‘I.’
  4. Put yourself in the character’s shoes. One of the strengths of first-person narration is that it places a reader directly into a character’s mindset giving them access to that character’s thoughts. Beyond necessary exposition and backstory, cut down on the extra information you communicate to your readers in your character’s first-person voice. You’d be surprised how much a reader will be able to pick up without you explicitly stating it.

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