I’m a member of the Charlotte Writer’s Group’s Facebook page, although regretfully I haven’t gone to any of the meetings or posted anything there yet. I bring this up because on Tuesday someone posted a link to a great blog post about Filter Words and Phrases which can really gum up your writing. You can read the full article here.
If you’re like me and had never heard of a filter word, you should definitely check it out. I don’t want to rewrite the entire post here, but the concept refers to using action verbs to “filter” the reader’s experience through that of a character, rather than letting the the reader have the experience directly.
For instance, take the following sentence:
“James heard the cry from upstairs and bolted up from the couch.”
Here, the word “heard” is a filter word. Rather than the reader experiencing the cry, it is filtered through James insofar as he “hears it”.
Now, let’s try taking out the word:
“From upstairs, something cried out. James bolted from the couch.”
I’ll be the first to tell you that it took me a minute to actually come up with a way to write the above sentence outside of the context of James “hearing” without it seeming forced or awkward. This is, perhaps, because I didn’t have a clear idea who was crying out when I wrote the original sentence and neither did James. However, after some work I do think what I ended up with is a stronger sentence. And if you want to change the nature of the sentence you can do that. Try:
“From upstairs, Whitney cried out. James bolted from the couch.”
For the sake of argument, let’s say you know Whitney is James’s wife. Let’s say you know Whitney is James’s daughter! Each one communciates something different and changes the whole context in a way that you cannot do if you confine the action to James “hearing” something. So yes, indeed, I think Charlotte Writer’s Group (and Anne R. Allen) are on to something. If nothing else, be aware of filter words and how you’re using them. It’s another tool in your writer’s toolbox to more precisely communciate with your reader.
And let me go one step farther and suggest that one take away from this exercise is that not only does the removal of the “filter” word bring the reader closer to the experience and give you more power to convey meaning with precision, gramatically speaking it also changes the structural focus of the sentence from the subject being acted upon to the subject that is taking action. Indeed, in a broader way this is just another version of the same principals that power such axioms as “avoid passive voice” and, perhaps the granddaddy of them all, “show don’t tell.”
Something to think about, certainly. And I hope to take that advice as I settle in to work on my short story tonight. It’s been two weeks now since I started, so I think we are getting to the point where I need to give you folks an update!