Filter words aren’t always a bad thing, but if you’re new to the writing craft or just unfamiliar with them, you’ll want to learn all you can.
An abundance of filter words makes reading difficult and causes readers to skim as they search for the story’s essence. Worse, they’re a sign of a beginner and a story that needs editing.
Filter words defined
Filter words are verbs and modals that describe what a character is doing or experiencing from the narrator’s point of view. You could also say that filter words tell the actions or events as seen through the character’s eyes instead of simply showing them.
Realize, seem, hear, and thought are common verbs used as filter words. The modals will, would, can, could, should, and others also function as filters, often in combination with additional filter words.
They’re usually placed between the subject of the sentence and the verb (action), state of things, or situation. They can also occur at the end of a sentence.
Bob realized he smelled bad, so he took a shower.
Bob took a shower when he realized he smelled bad.
As the term suggests, filter words create a veil or barrier between characters and their own actions or situations, other characters, and events. They add padding and wordiness that rarely adds value.
They’re common in everyday speech, and that’s why they end up in our writing. But filter words can make it difficult for readers to feel what a character is experiencing or see the action clearly. Worse, they can be tiresome and cause readers to quit.
In the example sentence above, our character Bob has two things going on: he smells bad, and he takes a shower. Whether the filter word is useful or not depends on your story.
If Bob has been running from a crazed madman for three days, realizing how bad he smells might be important when he gets to safety.
In most cases, though, a filter word like realize has little or no value.
Bob took a shower.
Of course, this is a simple example. Corrections depend on context and style.
Bob smelled like three-day road kill, and he cleaned up with an old rag soaked in vodka.
Another example of a filter word in a sentence
Amelia looked like she was going to faint.
This character is either ill or in emotional shock. She hasn’t fainted, but she looked like she will.
What does an almost-fainting person look like? Maybe she’s pale, gray, or green, unsteady, or has a blank expression or empty eyes. She might sway, grab something for balance, or sit.
Instead of using the filter word looked, which tells readers what might happen to Amelia considering her appearance (which isn’t described), why not show Amelia on the verge of fainting? What suits the scene and her character?
The blood drained from Amelia’s face.
Amelia wavered and reached blindly for the fencepost.
She stood ramrod straight, staring, as her legs buckled beneath her.
Filter words tell the story. Avoid them to show the action.
You’ve heard the advice to show, don’t tell, right? Filter words mean you’re telling, not showing. That doesn’t mean you always want to show. But they’re a tip-off if you’re trying to show more than tell.
This is telling:
Bob would have taken a shower, but he didn’t think he’d have time.
This is showing:
Bob skipped the shower. He was out of time.
See the difference?
A list of common filter words
Filter words usually pertain to the senses or thought process: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, and thinking. Modal verbs like can and could, will and would can also act as filter words.
Which filter words do you use habitually? How would you improve these? Start by deleting the filter words (underlined with associated words), then revise.
Able – He was able to pry the wire fence from the stake.
Can/could – Jasmine could sense his presence behind her.
Choose – Holly chose to ignore his antics.
Decide – Jared decided to walk to work that morning.
Experience – She experienced a tingling all over her skin.
Feel/felt – Annabel felt she’d had enough arguing for one night.
Gave – She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
Hear – They heard the wings flapping overhead.
Know – Harold knew they were chasing him.
Look – Her aunt looked like she was about to scream.
Note – She noted his strange odor.
Notice – Chrissy noticed how gracefully he walked.
Realize – She realized she would have to drive 300 miles that night.
Remember – Arthur remembered seeing her in Las Vegas.
See – He saw her as she walked up the street.
Seem – Mrs. Callahan seemed to take on an entirely different attitude.
Smell – Uncle Floyd smelled the rich scent of the stew as he opened the door.
Sound – She laughed and sounded like a donkey braying.
Think – Elaine thought the candles created a relaxed atmosphere
Watch – The crowd watched as the band came on stage.
Wonder – Eva wondered about the hateful expression on his face.
How to replace filter words depends on context.
Here are some more examples with revision. As you replace your own filter words, you might decide additional information is needed or delete the sentence entirely.
Filter word: She realized that she’d never be the same again.
Reword: She’d never be the same again.
Filter word: She experienced a tingling all over her skin.
Reword: Her skin tingled as she spread the lotion.
Filter word: She heard the mysterious scratch at the window and woke up.
Reword: A strange scratching woke her.
Filter word: He felt as if he couldn’t love anyone more than this.
Reword: He couldn’t love Elaine any more than this.
Filter word: He was able to stop the terrified horse before she reached the cliff.
Reword: He grabbed the horse’s bridle just short of the cliff.
Filter word: He was thinking about her all day.
Reword: Her image haunted him from sunrise to sundown.
Don’t forget! Sometimes filter words are useful when you have good reason to focus on how the character experiences something.
As the numbness lessened, she felt the breeze against her skin for the first time since her accident.
In this case, what might be a distracting filter word in another context is the main point. She could finally feel something after her accident.
How to find filter words
So you know what filter words are, and you know they’re weak and detract from your writing. Your next step is to check your writing if you’re ready to edit.
Note: If you haven’t completed all necessary revisions, you’re not ready to edit. You can do this for practice to improve your writing, but if scenes, sections, or chapters will change significantly, save this for your final editing.
If you’ve written a long-ish short story, a novella, or an entire novel, finding and revising filter words will take time and effort. But a system helps.
- First, determine your frequently used filter words. This might require reading a few pages or chapters carefully.
- Second, make a list of those words and use your word processing app to find them throughout your manuscript.
- Alternatively, search for common filter words like saw, noticed, heard, decide, realize or any from the list below. Learn which ones you use the most and create your own list.
Find filter words in MS Word
To create a list of your common filter words, use the Find feature.
- CTRL + F brings up the Navigation dialogue box.
- One at a time, enter various filter words in the text box (you might want to add a space before and after a word so you don’t get words that contain those letters, such as “overheard” when you search for “hear.”
- A list of locations will appear where the word, which will be temporarily highlighted, is used.
- Check whether it’s functioning as a filter word, and if so, add it to your list
- When you’ve created a list you’re satisfied with, close the dialogue box.
To highlight filter words semi-permanently:
- CTRL + H – This brings up the Replace tab of the Find and Replace dialogue box.
- Click the “More” button in the lower left. This expands the box.
- In the “Find What” text field, enter a filter word, such as “heard,” from your list.
- In the “Replace With” box, enter the characters ^ and & side by side, like this: ^&
- Keep the cursor in the “Replace With” box.
- Click the “Format” button.
- Click the “Highlight” option. You should now see the word “highlight” under the Replace With” text box.
- Click “Replace All.”
- Repeat with the next filter word in your list
With your filter words highlighted permanently, you can work on deleting and rewording at your own pace.
- Make sure a default highlight color is selected in the Home tab on your MS Word ribbon (menu).
- If it doesn’t work, try replacing instances one at a time (“Replace”) then click “Next” and highlight the next one. Then try “Replace All” again.
- Select a different highlight color for each filter word.
- When finished, use CTRL + A to select all text. In the Home tab of Word’s ribbon (menu), click the Highlight icon and select “No color.”
- Use this system to search for other words such as excess prepositions.
In MAC Pages, you can perform a similar search. Here are instructions. Other word processing apps and novel writing software, like Open Office and Scrivener, have similar functionality.
If you use editing software like ProWritingAid (PWA), you have several options.
- The Sticky Sentence Check snags lots of filter words. It won’t get them all, but filter words are a major reason for “sticky sentences.”
- Add your list of common filter words to the Overused Words Check (go to Settings > App Settings > Overused Words). You’ll get a report for “overused” filter words with each one underlined. as well as a list of those used only one time.
- PWA categorizes some overused words as “wishy-washy” and “telling rather than showing.” Most are also filter words!
Below is a list of common filter words without underlining or sample sentences. Copy and paste in a separate document for future reference. And add your own!
Questions and comments are welcome.
able to (they were able to)
note (he noted that)