Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Filter Words

I often hound my students about filter words. And yesterday I found myself cutting a whole bunch of them in my own manuscript. One example:

"She watched as mixed emotions throttled Cynthia’s face."


“Mixed emotions throttled Cynthia’s face.”

I usually write in a very close third person POV. "She watched," “she looked,” “she saw” and so on are seldom necessary because the reader knows who is doing the seeing, watching, etc. But oh boy, they sure find their way onto the page. (Same for when writing in a first person POV, of course.)

“Filter words” is a term picked up somewhere or other. Hamline, probably. Why "filter?” I guess because the phrase (she saw, etc) adds a filter--layer--between action and reader, decreasing immediacy. Some filters clarify things, of course, and at times that clarification is necessary.

Another term I use: “Slider words.” This is for the “Oh” or “Well” or “Okay” that often begins a line of dialogue. These words help us slide into the sentence--as writers and speakers--but can almost always be cut from the page. Sometimes there's a need for a beat or pause, but a slider word is probably not the way to do it.

These terms and others got discussed a lot at Hamline residency this past January, especially in regard to how foreign they can be to someone just entering the culture. The writing world, like any small society, has its own vocabulary. We're putting together a glossary of basic creative writing terms so incoming students aren’t so flummoxed by the in-speak. What term would you add?


  1. Oh, man. My well of "wells" is infinitely deep. I keep thinking that one day I'll get to the bottom. Nope.

    Word for the list: psychic distance!

  2. Well, I use a conjunction to start like nearly every sentence. And there seems to be no end in sight to this unseemly habit.

    And all my characters are always looking at each other, too.

  3. Listening to Puccini arias as I read your post, Marsha. Gorgeous, emotional music heightens words on the page. Have to admit I really like the slides. But will watch out in the future. Additions? Emotional life of our characters. And a healthy dose of Puccini.