This is something I see time after time in the slush pile so I figured I’d do a short post about it and bring together some resources from across the net. This issue is all up in the Suspended in Dusk 2 slush pile and it was all up in the Suspended in Dusk slush pile as well.
Filter words/Filtering/Emotional Filtering
It is a common fault that is not easily recognized, though once the principle is understood, cutting filters away can make writing more vivid. Fiction writers work through an observing consciousness (as in a narrator). Filtering happens when you make your readers observe the observer–to look at, rather than through the character. It dilutes the sense of being shown rather than told, because it reminds the reader that he or she is reading a story rather than experiencing it directly.
Burroway et. al., 2011.Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft. pp 29-30.”
One of the worst culprits for weakening your prose, distancing our reader from the protagonist’s point of view and the action, are filter words. This is where you say “John thought x y z ” or “It seemed as though x y z” or you say your character thinks/knows/realises/notices/decides/wonders things… rather than just showing the character doing those things.
A great example (and perhaps the most obvious) is if I write “John saw the big man lift his pistol and fire.” You don’t need to tell us John saw it… John is present in the scene and is our POV character. Unless John is blind, the default position is that he sees the things that go on in the scene. And if he was blind, you wouldn’t be saying he’d seen something, right? Instead of “John saw the big man lift his pistol and fire.” just write “The big man lifted his pistol and fired.”
Anyway, check this out here for a better explanation:
These pages also have some good basic examples of filtering which enable you to contrast sentences with filtering vs sentences without:
It is important to note that you can filter actions and also filter emotions. Almost every time you say the word “felt” in your fiction, you’re filtering. When you write “Jane felt furious.” you’re filtering the emotion of anger. Instead show us her being angry. Have her slam a cup on the table and curse at her husband instead. Likewise, if you write “Rachel felt overwhelmingly grateful for what Aunt Barbara had done.” you’re filtering her emotion of gratitude. Have Rachel hug Aunt Barb and say thank you, or turn up to her house with a box of chocolates and a bottle of wine… heck, anything that involves Rachel doing something (verbs/dialogue/etc) is better than you telling us she is grateful.
When you finish your editing, I recommend doing a CTRL+F on every filter word you can think of (some of the links in this post have lists) and cycle through your MS. Whenever you find a filter word, decide whether that filtering is legitimate or not. In some cases it might be. You may want distance from the character because you’re going for a certain aesthetic or style with the prose. Maybe you’re trying for an omniscient narrative voice or an old time fairytale feel. In which case, you want to step back from the immediate point of view of the character. Alternatively, if you generally write a close POV, maybe you search for a filter word and you realise the character is confused/out of it/on drugs/drunk/emotional and so the character is genuinely unsure of things so it’s relevant to say something “Seemed” a certain way or that she “noticed” a particular detail (because perhaps she cant make out any other details!)
I guarantee you, if you’re not legitimately trying to distance your reader from the action or point of view, and your remove most filtering: your prose will be tighter, your word count will go down dramatically, and your reader will be brought much closer to the action and also the point of view of the protagonist. In time you’ll realise that you don’t filter much at all and you’ll find you catch less and less during the editing process, but I’ve provided you with a good strategy you can use as part of your editing workflow to capture and eliminate filter words.