Instead of whispering our narrative into the reader’s ear, let’s transport them into the middle of the action and allow them to directly experience the story.

One way to do this is to reduce our overuse of filtering words, a term coined by Janet Burroway in her book, Writing Fiction. When we use filtering words, we are telling, not showing.

Common Filter Words

To… see, hear, think, touch, wonder, realize, watch, look, seem, feel, decide, sound/sound like, notice, be able to, experience, know….

Vignette with Filter Words

Karen noticed her beer was getting warm. She saw the waiter by the bar, and it seemed like he was too busy playing with his phone to take care of customers. Karen wondered how obnoxious she would have to be to get service.

As we see above, when we explicitly state that a character noticed, saw, and wondered about how it seemed we distance our reader from the action and emotion in the story. Here the reader is watching the character do something instead of being the character.

Vignette without Filter Words

Karen grimaced at the taste of her warm beer. The waiter leaned against the bar, thumbing at his phone. Karen cleared her throat. No response. She rattled her glass on the table. Nothing. She dug through her purse and found her rape whistle. Hmmm.

With the edited vignette, the writer no longer stands between the reader and the story. This allows the reader to inhabit the scene through the character, very much like the experience of a first-person shooter video game.

Gordon Freeman with His Crowbar from Half-Life

Should We Never Use Filter Words?

As you know, writing techniques are not one-size-fits-all. The secret is to be aware and mindful of the choices you make.

  • Occasionally we need filter words to convey a specific meaning or clarify a complex situation.
  • Sometimes a piece requires an economy of words, and a filter word can help us be brief.
  • It’s likely that a few filter words will slip into our work despite our edits. A few are OK. It is the over-reliance on them when we could state something in a more proximal way that becomes problematic.

And, now, I think I will join Karen for that cold beer.

Photo by monica di loxley / Unsplash