Filter Words and their role in the ‘Show Don’t Tell’ rule

One of the most important advice I ever got in the past year and a half that I’ve been writing, was about “filter words”. Filter words are descriptive words that we very often tend to use when we write, especially if you are like me and have no previous writing experience or if your educational background has nothing to do with literature. It is also the one that is directly related to the so well known rule “show don’t tell.”

When I first read about the “show don’t tell” rule I saw the importance of it immediately but even though I always had in my mind when I wrote, I hadn’t really gotten a full grasp of it. For me at that time that rule simply meant “Don’t tell me he was angry, show me his reactions based on the character being angry.” It made sense and it still does; there’s nothing wrong with it, in fact, that’s the right way to do it. There is a however a great difference between writing “Jenny felt her rage bubbling” and writing “Jenny’s rage bubbled.” Similarly, writing “Tim heard the wolf cry in the distance” may not be wrong BUT writing “the wolf cried in the distance” is far better and more captivating for the reader. After all, everything we write is the reader’s pleasure, right? Well, most of the times anyway.

The first example in each case uses a filter word (felt and heard). The second doesn’t and goes for a more direct approach and description. In fact, in the second example, the second phrase by omitting the filter word “heard” also forces us to remove the subject from the sentence (Tim), which can be found either in a previous sentence in the same paragraph or in a following one.

Here’s a list of filter words that I have found flooding my earlier manuscripts and my first drafts:

to sound/to sound like
to see
to consider
to hear
to note
to think
to notice
to touch
to realise
to watch
to look
to hope
to seem
to feel/to feel like
to be able to
to decide
to know

All of the above (and probably more than just them) are considered as filter words. There may other terms for them but that’s how I came to know them. When these words are used, they create a barrier between the reader and what the character experiences in the story and as such, they create distance.

Naturally, there are occasions where using these words as in the examples I mentioned earlier, it’s necessary. They are particularly useful when one writes about a dream and want to show that distance of what is real and what isn’t. Use with moderation, though, cause a dream often has a profound effect. Generally speaking, whenever you want to add tension and want the reader to feel immersed in the scene or in the feeling, avoid them. I’ve come to terms with using them during my first drafts, though the more I write and I practice, the more I find myself to be aware of them making their way into my writing and rearranging my thoughts as I write them down. Remember last
week’s post about the importance of writing on a daily basis? It helps a lot in cases like this, because you get to practice.

Have a look at your current and older manuscripts. Do these words appear anywhere? Were you aiming for tension when you used them? If yes, have you considered revising that part and adding more tension by simply removing that filter word? I know my writing has gone up a level since I learned about it and implemented it on my manuscripts. I’m sure yours could benefit from it too. Also, have you found any other filter words like the above? If so, please post them in the comments below, so more aspiring writers can benefit.