Welcome back. Today’s blog, as promised, will consider my third point in the editing process, “get out of the way of the action.” I was asked what the difference was between filler words and filter words.

Upon my writing desk, I have a board with my favorite (and necessary) reminders – I need them written and right in front of me, nagging away. This is one of them, although I pay the most attention to this on my rewrites (from the first to the final edit). For my first draft, I follow Shannon Hale’s example, “When writing the first draft, I remind myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” 

Both filler words and filter words get in the way of the action. So, what is the difference between “FILTER” words and “FILLER” words?

“Filter” words are a POV issue, while “Filler” words are writing in general problem.  Suzannah  Windsor (Editor of Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing), defines filter words this way:

Filter words are those that unnecessarily filter the reader’s experience through a character’s point of view.  “Filtering” is when you place a character between the detail you want to present and the reader. Janet Burroway started the term in her book On Writing.

In terms of examples, 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)

Let’s imagine a character in your novel is walking down a street during peak hour.

You might, for example, write:

Sarah FELT a sinking feeling as she REALIZED she’d forgotten her purse back at the cafe across the street. She SAW cars filing past, their bumpers end-to-end. She HEARD the impatient honk of horns and WONDERED how she could quickly cross the busy road before someone took off with her bag. But the traffic SEEMED impenetrable, and she DECIDED to run to the intersection at the end of the block.

Eliminating the bolded words in CAPS, removes the filters that distance us, the readers, from this character’s experience:

New version without the filter: Sarah’s stomach sank. Her purse—she’d forgotten it back at the cafe across the street. Cars filed past, their bumpers end-to-end. Horns honked impatiently. Could she make it across the road before someone took off with her bag? She ran past the impenetrable stream of traffic toward the intersection at the end of the block.

Of course, there are usually exceptions to every rule. Just because filter words tend to be weak doesn’t mean they never have a place in our writing. Sometimes they are helpful and even necessary.

Susan Dennard of Let the Words Flow writes that we should use filter words when they are critical to the meaning of the sentence.

If there’s no better way to phrase something than to use a filter word, then it’s probably okay to do so.

Workshop suggestion: Since filter words are part of the self-editing process, the same kind of workshop can be used. Take a scene, page, or chapter you’ve written (or from a magazine, newspaper, a novel, etc.) and removed all the filter words above. I think you will find it both interesting and informative. Have someone read the old and the new versions to you. I think you’ll like the latest version. Give it a shot.

Concerning Filler words, according to Erin Feldman (founder of Write Right), everyone has filler words. One of mine is “just.” I’m conscious of it because it was brought to my attention during a poetry workshop several years ago. Before that, I didn’t even notice it. It was a “filler” in much the same way that everyone has their version of a verbal pause.

Filler words can be almost any word, but ten of the more common ones include the following:

  1. Just. I thought I should start this list with my pitfall. “Just” isn’t a required word most of the time; it’s more often added to effect a version of “quite.”
  2. So. “So” is often used to describe the quality of something, i.e., “he was so late,” but the word is incomplete without an explanation. If the explanation isn’t required or shouldn’t be given, the word “so” should not be used. The case is the same for the word “such.”
  3. Very. Like “so,” “very” is used to describe the quality of something: “he was very late.” The word doesn’t say much of anything and should be cut.
  4. Really. “Really” functions like “very” and “so” and is another filler to guard against.
  5. That. “That” often is a word used to connect phrases but is rarely necessary. My advice with this particular word is to read the sentence aloud, once with the word and once without it. If the sentence makes sense without the word, cut it.
  6. And then. These two words are used to show progression, but they’re not needed. The story should be able to unfold on its own. If it can’t, revisiting the plot is required, not the addition of “and then.” This advice also applies to the words “and so.”
  7. But. “But” is a conjunction that joins phrases within a single sentence together. The word can be used to start a sentence – a use usually reserved for informal writing – but it isn’t needed. The advice also applies to other conjunctions such as “and” and “yet” as well as words like “however.”
  8. Of. “Of” is a word not always required, as in the case of “off of” and “outside of.”
  9. Some. “Some” is often used as an adverb meaning “somewhat” or as an adjective meaning “remarkable,” but it’s more correct to use the actual words than the colloquial “some.”
  10. Like. “Like” may be more often heard when speaking, but it occasionally encroaches upon the written word.

Workshop suggestion: Since filler words are part of the self-editing process, the same kind of workshop can be used. Take a scene, page, or chapter you’ve written (or from a magazine, newspaper, a novel, etc.) and removed all the filler words above. Have someone read the old and the new versions to you. I think you’ll like the new version. Give it a shot.

Thanks for being here and stay brilliant, healthy and hopeful, Nick