Filter Words?

A few days ago writer Anthony Lee Collins shared his thoughts about a term I’d never heard before: filter words.

Of course, I had to look it up, so I Googled the folks he was referring to and read what they had to say.  (Write It Sideways talks about it and links to Let The Words Flow and Fiction Factor.  There’s also another link, but it leads to some Go Daddy page, heh.)

The concern is that such words can dampen the reader’s experience and should generally be avoided.

What, exactly, are Filter Words?

“Filter words” are basically words used to create distance between the reader and what’s happening on the page; the author “filters” story events through a character’s senses (which in itself isn’t actually a bad thing, when you think about it) while also including overt “sense words”or words indicating cognitive processes within the descriptions of their character’s experiences…rather than allowing the reader to directly experience the events themselves.  (I suspect this may be a subtle form of author or narrative intrusion, which seems to be a fairly undesirable technique for many readers these days.)

From the sites linked above, listed examples of common trigger terms (and their variations) that may point to the possible misuse of filters include:

  • 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)

Brief examples of the improper use of filter words are (underlines inserted by myself):

  • “She realized she’d reached the point of no return. She had to kill him.”  Versus, “The point of no return. Breached. She had to kill him.” – Fiction Factor
  • “I see the moon rise overhead.”  Versus, “The moon rises overhead.” – Let The Words Flow
  • “I hear a howl from the hall — it sounds like Emily is in trouble!”  Versus, “A howl comes from the hall—Emily!  She’s in trouble!” – also from Let The Words Flow

Hopefully you can see how the removal of “filter words” brings the reader closer to what is happening in each situation–which is good, if you intend for the reader to be close to something.

Here’s the thing, though (and this is something Anthony also pointed out): all of these examples are being used to demonstrate how filter words create distance within moments that actually call for emotional immediacy (or, as Anthony put it, when “something immediate and exciting is happening”)–a woman who has just finished crossing a busy street when she realizes she’s left her purse at the cafe on the opposite side (see the Write It Sideways link); the woman who realizes she’s reached “the point of no return” and decides she must now kill a man (Fiction Factor), etc.  These are moments of relatively high tension.  Such moments can be especially poignant and in-your-face, so the dampening effect of filter words would not compliment this mode of storytelling.

…But that’s just one mode of storytelling.

We know now when not to use filter words, but then I’m left wondering…

When is it okay to use filter words?

Now, Let The Words Flow does actually point out some examples of where it might be okay to use filter words, but, to be honest, when I compare those to the earlier examples, it’s still not clear to me.  (And perhaps this is because we’re only given one sentence out of each fictional situation and have no additional context to go by.)

I want to take into consideration, then, those moments in a story when you don’t want total, gripping immediacy.  What if you are going for a less intense, rather muted effect?

I think filter words can be used to achieve these things intentionally.  I think they can even induce a slower pace or suggest a distant state of mind that a character might currently be in.

Take the example given on Fiction Factor: “She realized she’d reached the point of no return. She had to kill him.”  Nothing really seems wrong with this example to me because I don’t really know what’s happening with the rest of the story.  Then the alternative: “The point of no return. Breached. She had to kill him.”  Punchier, sure, and it may be more appropriate to this particular situation…if the character is in a frantic state of mind and plans on doing the killing immediately rather than after she’s had ample time to plan things through.

But do you want every moment of a story to read this intensely?

Maybe the narrator actually has reason to create some distance here, but that all depends on the context.  If the character is having a calm moment of rationalization and is trying to decide why she should commit premeditated murder, for example, then why wouldn’t you use filter words to create distance and space and, therefore, extra time when there’s no hurry to kill just yet?  What if we are witnessing the mind of a practiced serial killer?  To me, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to remove the filter word, if this was the case.

The difference in the use of filter words here would be between depicting someone who is in a state of panic versus for someone who is brooding in a controlled manner.  The first requires a more urgent mode of storytelling while the second requires something more relaxed and pensive.

Other Reasons to Use Filter Words

I think that if you were to write your entire story using the same technique over and over again, it would begin to feel flat after a while.  Of course, I also think it takes a tremendous amount of concentration to be able to realize when, and why, you’re using filter words, which is probably why it’s so easy to use them by default in the first place.  So yes, I think using filter words warrants caution (something you’d probably pay more attention to during editing than writing the first draft), but we shouldn’t be afraid of them or prescribe a negative connotation to the term.  Personally, I’d prefer to understand how to use filter words in addition to how not to use them.

Ultimately, I think that being able to freely switch back and forth between the inclusion and omission of filter words can add variety to stories and keep them from having an overly homogenous fabric, if you will.  Different moods and styles can create different textures, shake things up a bit.  (I like how Anthony also compared it to variety in music or colors in art on his blog.  It’s the same kind of idea.  Mutes can be used on musical instruments like the trumpet or violin to dampen the sound, creating a softer effect, in the same way that complimentary colors can be added to hues in order to create less vibrant, intense colors.)

At least, that’s what I think.  Maybe I’m totally wrong here.  I don’t know, you tell me.

What are your thoughts about using filter words?

Can you think of specific situations where you’d want to use them?  Also, would you say that using filter words is a form of author intrusion?  (And is author intrusion a “bad” thing?)


20 thoughts on “Filter Words?

  1. I wouldn’t necessarily say that author intrusion is an altogether “bad” thing, but it’s not something you want too much of at all. Stylistically, some stories work better with bits of author intrusion, with poking fun at their own sort of characters, just leaving off that sort of whimsical feel to the writing at times. Others, well, most times, I’d say that author intrusion certainly isn’t something to aim for. To avoid it when possible, generally, is probably best unless it’s worked a certain way. If any of that makes sense.

    Filter words, I can definitely see situations where I’d take them out and others where the use would be intentional. Like…if the character’s in what should’ve been an emotionally charged moment but just shuts down, that distance, that thought of her or him saying that he “saw” something or that he “watched” his brother pick up the gun, without him sort of frozen in that moment, I think filter words would definitely be a good thing. They’d sort of show that character’s emotional detachment without blatantly saying it, I think. If, of course, that’s the intention and how the character reacts to specific actions and such. And if it works. Sometimes, it just doesn’t, I guess.

    But most of the time, I’d say to take them out. Adding that distance in too much of the time is distracting, as are author intrusions, though at times, they add a sort of pleasant spice to the writing. I think using filter words are a sort of author intrusion, at times, while in others, they aren’t. Not sure how to explain that, though…Ah, just my two cents on the whole thing. Nice post!


    • Hi, Blueghoul! And thanks for your two cents. 😉

      A word you used that stood out to me was “spice.” Maybe filter words are a little like spices. Too much and you spoil the whole meal. Or using a spice in the wrong ways…that can be just as bad. (Like my lil’ sister accidentally sprinkling cinnamon into the spaghetti recipe, haha. Mmm, that was tasty… Not.)

      Also, I like how you mentioned using intrusion to poke fun at what’s going on in a story. That could potentially be a great source of fun not only for the author but the reader as well. Always risky using humor, but could be worth the risk in the right hands!


      • Hello! And thank you for the thought-provoking post. 🙂

        I’d definitely agree with that statement. Along with the spaghetti. Heh. I think it’s also a little bit of a thing that you’d have to know before just blindly using. Without ever tasting what cayenne was, you wouldn’t know where not to put it. Sometimes, you gotta just test it and play with it for a while before it works, I think.

        Yup! Humor’s always tricky, but when it works, it works well.


  2. I’ve been writing for a long time – most of my life and now for over two decades – and until last week I’d never even heard the term “filter words” before. I encountered it on Jo Eberhardt’s blog here, and it was something of a revelation – the elimination of filter words made a huge difference in the flow and style of the sentences.

    This is an interesting take, as well – advocating for the deliberate use of filter words to intentionally create an emotional distance and space, to slow the narrative and make it more pensive. I think that makes sense. The example you pick nits with is a good case in point: “She realized she’d reached the point of no return. She had to kill him.” Versus, “The point of no return. Breached. She had to kill him.” I actually think the realization “She had to kill him.” is already pretty dramatic. The filter word might be more useful – particularly if, as you suggest, this is occurring in a moment of premeditation well before the actual act is to occur – because that emotional distance might be more desireable. If someone’s contemplating murder, I can see that it could well be the case. The second version I actually don’t really like that much. It’s so staccato and perfunctory… it might work in certain situations, but generally the rhythm would feel off.

    Between Jo’s and your post (and I’ll have to check out Anthony’s as well), I feel like I’ve just learned something really valuable about the craft of writing. It’s been a long time since I actually learned something new about writing craft. Thanks!


    • Oh! I actually didn’t see Jo’s, though I know Anthony mentioned her. (Looking at it now, I think she gives some really clear examples!)

      Yeah, I have to admit…when I was reading about filter words for the first time (like four-ish days ago now), it really stopped and made me think. Sometimes I feel I’m more of an instinctual writer than technical one (not necessarily a good thing), so I’m glad to have come across this new concept—new to me anyway—because it nails the source of some of the problems I come across and makes it easier to detect and assess whether I’m putting my words to good use.

      I’d still like to explore the other side of it, though, you know?


  3. “The point of no return. Breached. She had to kill him.” The other examples you give are fine, but this one rubs me the wrong way. Context might help, but it feels hypey to me. To some extent, the drama has to come from the situation and the way the characters react to that, and if the readera are hooked in, they’ll get it. This feels like the writer doesn’t have that confidence. Just a gut reaction. As Stephen put it, too staccato.

    Stephen’s quick reply about spaghetti actually contains a very important point. Tastes do differ, and there is no one answer to any writing question, not one that will please everybody. Think about Hemingway and Henry James (well, thinking about them having a conversation is hilarious, but that’s another question). Imagine the same scene as written by each of them. It would be completely different, and might not even be recognizeable as the same scene, but either or both might be great.


    • Well, I don’t know about the whole confidence thing, heh, but…idk. There seems to be both psychological and stylistic advantages to using or not using filter words that are difficult to grasp.

      In any case, it’s something I’m still going to think about.


  4. I commented, on Anthony’s blog about this one. I always treat filter words (even though I didn’t know what they were called before LOL) in a similar way to the passive tense. Sometimes they emphasise the concept I’m trying to relay, and other times the extra words help with the flow of the sentence (the rhythem or beat). I wouldn’t go so far as to get rid of them all, but there are a lot of times I’ve found I’ve thrown them in when they aren’t necessary or are redundant – then I cut 😉


    • Oh yeah, it happens to me all the time, haha. It’s most annoying when you actually catch yourself doing it in the process. You’re like, “Stop that!” *slaps hands*

      Lazy writer.


  5. Hey Tiayana,
    Nice post, good food for thought.
    I think filter words are like any other tool. Sometimes you want to put some distance between your characters and your readers. It could be for style reasons or the subject matter. Also, too much intimacy can be oppressive (IMHO). A little distance is a good thing. As you and other commentators have mentioned, there should be some variance in distance, at least in a novel-length work.
    That said, it is easier to sell work that lacks filter words. I’ve experimented with a few short stories that used plenty of filter words and had an authorial voice. They haven’t sold (so far) and the feedback I’ve gotten indicates that several editors, at least, like less distance between the reader and the characters.

    Like anything in writing you can do whatever you want, so long as you do it very well.


    • Hiya, Mark. Thanks for sharing!

      I guess, for me, there’s just a certain appeal to learning how to work with things that tend to be…discouraged. Tell me, “Try not to do this,” or, “You can’t do that,” and immediately I want to know, “Well, why the heck not?”

      In a way, it’s childish, but it’s also more of a challenge. A call for experimentation and to consider filter words in a different light. Instead of “bad, bad, get rid of that!” it’s, “hmm, what does this do?”


  6. Following up on the “What does this do?” idea, I have to mention that Tamara Paulin left this comment on my blog: “Filter words create narrative distance. In general, I think narrative distance is good for bringing attention to the big picture of what’s happening. It’s the difference, to use movie terminology, between a close-up and a wide shot. Most movies use both for best effect.”

    When I read that, it stopped me in my tracks. Not that the analogy is exact, but I think it’s pretty close. It really made it clear that each tool has its uses. As I responded, “Interesting, especially since I’ve been watching some directors recently who were very sparing with the closeups: John Ford and Howard Hawks.”


  7. Just want to say thanks so much for writing this. I’m going over my final draft of a book I’ve written (a travel memoir) and knew I was having a problem with certain words that weren’t serving a real purpose (most of the time). Now, I have a name for them.

    I’ve been searching and replacing as many as possible. I must say that I’m struggling with these: seemed, felt and wondered. Not easy to clean this up, but well worth it.



    • Hi, Lisa! Glad you stopped by and found some use out of this post. 🙂

      Lately I realized I’ve been guilty of using those three words–seemed, felt and wondered–a lot in my manuscript, as well. I have to stop and ask myself, is there another way to say this without using those words? Sometimes, though, there really isn’t another way and I actually mean to use those words!

      I’m finding that sometimes this is a good check, though, that offers a challenge to be more creative with wording and find ways of saying common things in less common ways. At the same time, you don’t want to go too far with being “creative” in this regard… It still has to sound natural, heh.

      Forever learning…


  8. Don’t forget ‘be able to!’ I find myself using these filter words a lot, and they are totally unnecessary to the meaning of the sentence.


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