Sunday, June 26, 2011

Filter Words? Since When?

Let me take you back to the days when you were a new writer. Remember the first time someone told you that ly-adverbs were unacceptable? It was like being blindsided. First, came the confusion. How could ly-adverbs be bad? Your dialogue would fall flat without "laughingly," "softly," and "excitedly." Then came the denial. This critiquer didn't know what they were talking about. Your writing was fine, just fine.

Then came the nagging doubt. The internet research. The realization that, oh, ly-adverbs are bloodsucking prose-leeches that should be eradicated without mercy.


I feel like that again today. One moment, I was skimming my way through Write About Now and Solvang Sherrie threw out the phrase "filter words," which struck me as unusual, so I Googled it.

The next moment, I'd discovered a whole new realm of pain.

See, filter words are bad. They're sneaky. They feel like including POV but in fact, they distance readers from the story. And I'm pretty sure that I'm guilty.

Susan Dennard at Let The Words Flow said,

Filters are words or phrases you tack onto the start of sentence that show the world as it is filtered through the main character’s eyes.

(with filter phrase) I see the moon rise overhead.

(without filter phrase) The moon rises overhead.

She has a ton of other great examples, including this list of filter words to watch out for:

Here’s a list of filter words for you to watch out for:

  • to see
  • to hear
  • to think
  • to touch
  • to wonder
  • to realize
  • to watch
  • to look
  • to seem
  • to feel (or feel like)
  • can
  • to decide
  • to sound (or sound like)
You can read her full post here.

I've spent the last few days going through a fresh draft of Mirrorpass doing a continuity read+line edit, and one thing I started writing down were phrases or words I overused. So far on my list I have the overuse of "and" in descriptive passages. The use of "all at once." The use of "slowly" at the beginning of sentences. Now, I'm having nightmares of what my list would look like if I went through searching for filter words--eep!

My writer friends, this is the moment to take a deep breath.

To realize we're professionals and that we can handle this. We got over ly-adverbs and passive phrasing, after all. We can do this.

What I'm left with now is, A: Why haven't I ever heard of these before? And B: How bad of a problem is it? Is this an advanced fiction thing, that you learn about as you mature; is it a Writing 101 principle that I've missed this whole time?

My thought is it's an advanced fiction thing. Also, taking a closer look, "filter words" seem like a mix between passive writing, and telling versus showing. Removing the filter phrase brings us from the passive POV to an active description. We're not being told that the POV sees, or feels, or decides; we're shown the POV seeing, feeling, deciding.

This gives me a little hope. Maybe this is just a new term for the evil I've always known existed. Maybe, like a virus that has evolved around the vaccines in place, this form of passive telling is just another weakness that writers can subconsciously develop. If so, fixing it just means doing what I've always done--look for signal phrases. Cut ruthlessly. Learn to write with active prose. Learn to identify when filter words should stay, instead of go.

Here are two more helpful posts on the topic:

Why Editors Reject Manuscripts -- they actually talk about this under "passive voice," and within that section they call it "a filter."

So yes. I've been blindsided. Now that I've discovered the big secret of the universe, I want you guys to 'fess up. Did you know about filter words? Why didn't you tell me? What do you think about them, now that I've been so gracious as to ruin the day by informing you?

Truly and always,
-Creative A


Sherrie Petersen said...

Oh, too funny! Didn't mean to cause any stress!

One of my critique partners actually acquainted me with filter words after her editor pointed them out to her. I freely admit they are hard for me to avoid, especially in the first draft. Excellent links you found on the topic, though!

Creative A said...

Yes, the way that worked out was hilarious! Actually I'm indebted to you mentioning it. Now I know, right?

And on a side-note, I agreed with you on taking off the editorial had and shutting down the voices. I had that problem a lot. Now I regularly just drop of the interwebs during first drafts for that very reason.


Kate Avery Ellison said...

Thanks for posting this ... I read an article about it the other day but lost the link. Your links here are perfect, and I'm going to use the list to comb through my manuscript during edits.

Erin Latimer said...

Totally get you! I know that I'm a big over-user of words like 'suddenly', 'seemed' and 'felt', but I've never really considered the problem and worked on fixing it.

Now I want to whip out a red pen over my first two chapters! Though I'll probably wait until I've finished the first draft.

Thanks for sharing! :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Yes, it's painful! But better to see than not, yes? And now I need to go check my MS again... sigh.

Creative A said...

Hey Katie - glad I could help! Having articles to reference was my goal, too. So much better than trying to remember it all.

Hey Erin - two chapters, as in, two chapters into a new novel? That's pretty awesome. Congrats! I know how tempted I was to red-pen my novel when I read about this, so I can only imagine how tempting it must be for you now. But I think it's wise to wait, even to give yourself a few days to whole filter-word concept sink in.

Susan - hey, thanks for following! And yes...painful as it is, it's definitely better to know than not know. Are you in edits?

Cheers everyone!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'm doing one last pass through before sending off a couple requests. As I'm trimming up, I'm catching a few of those filter words. Mind you, I thought I'd already checked for them. It never ends! :)

Cinette said...

(Sigh) I have to admit, this is news to me. As if I didn't already have BAD WORD issues;-( Thanks for the heads-up!

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