Saturday, January 26, 2013

Fling Off the Filtering

It's been a bugger of a January. Temperatures below zero. Snow every day. A sick son, a sick husband, and now a sick dog. As I have to get groceries and visit the vet, I'm re-running a post on filtering I did as a guest spot. As any writers I beta can testify, filtering drives me nutty. I'm always trying to weed it out of my own writing and pointing it out to others.

Filtering is exactly what its name implies. It is running an observation through your point of view character instead of giving it straight to the reader. It’s pretty easy to spot but can be harder to remove. What happens is you’re having the character share the action with the reader instead of putting it directly before the reader. It’s like a stage direction that shouts ‘look here’. If you have words like ‘heard, saw, watched, looked, realized, knew, understood, seemed, and felt’ then you have filtering. Here’s a heavy example:

She heard the gunshot and dropped her book. It felt like her stomach twisted and dropped into a hole. She knew that her mom had taken matters into her own hands. Going to the window, she saw smoke rising from the rifle crimped against her mother’s shoulder, and she watched as dozens of blackbirds scattered from the cornfield. It seemed Mom had gone over the deep end. 

So what’s so bad about filtering? First off, it adds to your word count. Those words are unnecessary, and they won’t help your cause with agents. It makes the writing look sloppy instead of sharp and concise. 

Second, it’s like twirling your head in plastic wrap, or putting a swimsuit on your kid, covering him with a towel, and adding a parka to top it off before you go to the beach. You’re coating your writing in layers. Those words create a distance between the reader and your character. They filter and slow down the pace, adding a layer to separate readers from getting close to the action. Everything you write, unless you use third person omniscient, is coming through your point of view character. What filtering does is poke the reader in the eye and say ‘hey, don’t forget, my character is here’.

Most of the time, it isn’t necessary though there are exceptions. Rarely, there are times when you do want to draw attention to something such as the fact that your character is in a dark room so you focus on her hearing.

Here’s how it looks without the filtering:

The pop of a gunshot made her drop her book. Her stomach twisted as if it fell into a hole. Her mother had taken matters into her own hands. At the window, smoke rose from the rifle crimped against her mother’s shoulder while dozens of blackbirds scattered from the cornfield. Her mother had gone off the deep end. 

Try writing without filtering words and see how much more vivid and fast paced your writing becomes.


  1. As the recipient of many of your dreaded "filtering" comments, I can attest to your hatred of this writerly crime.

    There is one situation where I find filtering useful. It's at the start of a scene when I begin with imagery, description or dialog of the non-pov character. I find following that up with a hearty "Millicent watched the absurd display, unimpressed." can really help root the pov in the reader's mind where it might otherwise be muddled.

  2. Somehow I missed this post the first time around. Glad I caught it this time, cause it's what every writer needs to hear. Excellently put, my friend.

    Sorry your household are all sickies. Blah. And I hate snow, so I don't envy you that, either. Come Summer, rescue us from the white bane! LOL.

  3. This is awesome; not the generic 'how to lessen word count' advice which everyone knows. I can use this new piece if info! I need to lessen my words. THANK YOU!

  4. Arrghh! Something I STILL have to fight against. Luckily, I only do it during rough drafts, and kill it during edits. But...when will I stop putting it in roughs?!?!

    Awesome sauce blog :)

  5. Great advice! Yes, I seem to add all these filter words instinctively and have to cut them when I revise. Which reminds me that I need to search for these again.

  6. Filtering is pet peeve of mine as well. It really pulls me out of the story when writers do this.

  7. Nice post.Thank you so much for sharing this post.