#EditTip: Narrative Distance and Filter Words

Jeri Walker
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Jeri Walker
Jeri Walker
Jeri Walker
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If you want your novel to suck less, try cutting out filter words. When it comes to narrative distance and filter words, it’s important for a writer to ask if the achieved effect of such words is on purpose. Filter words tend to slip in unintentionally and weaken writing. All stories have a narrator, and no matter the point of view, this shapes how events are rendered for the reader. A certain awkwardness arises when a character consciously thinks, feels, sees, etc.  This creates varying degrees of distance between the reader and page, and while this can be handled with masterful effect, too often filter words remind the reader of the point of view already obviously controlling the story. 

 

Narrative Distance and Filter Words

Picking a point of view is only part of the battle when writing a story. Narrative distance takes a reader out of a story and breaks the spell of reading a book because the reader has become aware of the act of reading when they encounter filter words. Their presence often adds an unnecessary narrative layer for the sake of unneeded clarification. The deeper the point of view in a story, the more immediate and direct the effect on the reader. The best way to make a reader feel like they are inside of a character’s skin is to not constantly point out what in tarnation a character might be realizing, remember, or knowing. You get the idea…

 

Filter Words and Phrases

Filter words explain a narrator’s mindset to the reader rather than showing it in observable actions. The list below is comprehensive, but not exhaustive. The key is to gain a greater awareness of such phrases to develop more control over the effect they have on a given narrative. And for the love of sanity, people! Let’s just stop it already with all of those roving eyes. Eyeball action is so not interesting. Seriously.

  • Believed
  • To be able to
  • Can
  • Decided
  • Experience
  • Felt
  • Heard
  • Ignored
  • Knew
  • Looked
  • Noted
  • Noticed
  • Realized
  • Remembered
  • Saw
  • Seem
  • Sensed
  • Smelled
  • Tasted
  • Thought
  • Touch
  • Watched
  • Wondered

 

picture of robot

 

Examples of Filtered and Unfiltered Sentences

The following are quick and unsophisticated examples, but helpful nonetheless. When it comes time to revise a draft, a writer can do themselves a big favor by doing a search for the words listed above. Narrative distance and filter words will stick out like sore thumbs when searched for. Think of their elimination like a game of sorts. As I always say, make every word count.

 

When it comes to the simple fixes below, remember the narrator’s presence is a given. So again, I beseech you! Please stop constantly reminding your reading of the narrator’s awareness of their thoughts and feelings. Enough is enough. It’s time to get tough and kick those filter words to the curb in favor of stronger writing.

 

Filtered: She saw his wedding ring sitting on the side table.

Unfiltered: His wedding ring sat on the side table.

 

Filtered: She suddenly realized he didn’t want to be married anymore. (We’ll save the annoying use of suddenly for another day…)

Unfiltered: He didn’t want to be married anymore.

 

Filtered: She watched him approach the front door and wondered if this really was how it was going to end.

Unfiltered: He approached the front door. Was this really how it would end? (No need to tack on she thought either…)

 

Filtered: She sensed the inevitable outcome, as she felt her throat constrict and tears pool in her eyes.

Unfiltered: The inevitable outcome hit as her throat constricted and tears pooled in her eyes.

 

Filtered: While remembering recent events, her wavering voice held firm. “If you walk out that door, you are not welcome back.”

Unfiltered: Despite recent events, her wavering voice held firm. “If you walk out that door, you are not welcome back.”

 

The Entire Filtered Passage: She saw his wedding ring sitting on the side table. She suddenly realized he didn’t want to be married anymore. She watched him approach the front door and wondered if this really was how it was going to end. She sensed the inevitable outcome, as she felt her throat constrict and tears pool in her eyes. While remembering recent events, her wavering voice held firm. “If you walk out that door, you are not welcome back.”

 

The Entire Unfiltered Passage (with further tweaks):  She was standing next to the side table where his wedding ring sat. He didn’t want to be married anymore, that much was clear as he approached the front door. Was this really how it would end? The inevitable outcome hit as her throat constricted and tears pooled in her eyes. Despite recent events, her wavering voice held firm. “If you walk out that door, you’re not welcome back.”

 

And yes folks, that little ditty is a true story. Sometimes husbands get into taxicabs and never come back. Your editor has quite the tale she’ll pen someday.

 

Filter Words Pros and Cons

When it comes to narrative distance and filter words, eliminating filter words often takes care of issues with telling over showing. Telling isn’t necessarily evil, and it’s often useful to move parts of a story along. However, a story world should generally be immersive to be effective. On the other hand, sometimes too much can be revealed. Not everything in a character’s head is interesting. Everything on the page should have a purpose when it comes to advancing the story. Nobody likes to read filler.

 

 

How often do you notice narrative distance and filter words in your writing or in the books you read?

 

 

Photo Credit:  Robot 

 

Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2017.

Author: Jeri Walker

Need help writing that book blurb, bio, or newsletter? Give your book the attention it deserves. Book your copy edit, manuscript critique, or proofread today. Make every word count.

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43 Comments

  1. Point well made. I was trained as a journalist and one of the things we were taught is that if you can delete a word from a sentence without changing the meaning it doesn’t belong there. Writing tweets within the character limit is good practice.

    Post a Reply
    • Ken, getting rid of unnecessary words is indeed great advice for all writers to heed. Like all things, it takes practice. At least for specific issues like this, it’s possible to search for the types of words that tend to crop up over and over again.

      Post a Reply
  2. “Filter words tend to slip in unintentionally and weaken writing. All stories have a narrator, and no matter the point of view, this shapes how events are rendered for the reader. A certain awkwardness arises when a character consciously thinks, feels, sees, etc”. ..

    I agree with that statement …
    The examples you provided (filtered vs unfilltered) speak out loud. The filtered version seem to lack of consitency and pace. Not to mention that it entails a surreptitious primacy of the point of view… (more obvious if it is in third person, I am guessing).
    “Telling without showing”: An imperative of dynamic reading, and, I dare to say “good” (or which, at least, pretends to be so)
    Great post, dear Jeri. Sending best wishes! 😀

    Post a Reply
    • Aqui,filtered words will be just as obvious in first person, though readers are probably more accepting of them given the perameters of that point of view as opposed to third-person. In any case, cutting down on their appearance will deepen the point of view and create a more immediate read.

      Post a Reply
  3. I have never paid attention to such words while writing but the examples you have given illustrate the difference very clearly. It is quite difficult to change one’s style of writing and I have always felt taking away certain words diminish the real tone and tenor of the piece. 🙂
    Thanks for the pointers Jeri, they are worth consideration.

    Post a Reply
  4. Wonderful to read this as I’m editing my mystery. I’m adding these words to my elimination list! Those are all those worlds I write away with when I’m doing my drafts and then work like heck to eradicate when editing.

    Post a Reply
    • Rose Mary, the filter words are definitely ones to add to your zap list. It will be fun to see how many more I can zap once your manuscript in in my hands comes spring.

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  5. Great post on narrative distance. Your examples illustrate the point wonderfully. I’m hanging on to the list of words to search for when editing.

    Post a Reply
  6. Hi, Jeri, great job. I am a quite unfiltered writer, I go hard on that, really. But even so, when I’m editing, I always find some filtering intruders here and there.
    Thanks for the precious tips.

    Post a Reply
  7. Jeri, this was just what I needed. I’ve on my first round of revision. This is perfect for me to use. Thank you.

    Post a Reply
  8. Thank you for outlining the perils of using filter words. I once read writers should avoid filter words as they are “airy fairy” and add nothing to your content. I try to bear this in mind when writing for my blog or book. I read my draft and remove unnecessary words before publishing.

    I have learnt that writing requires much practice and a change of mindset. I am enjoying the journey.

    Post a Reply
    • Phoenicia, their presence generally adds an unintended narrative distance the author doesn’t necessarily seek. That’s great you’re attuned to cutting out unneeded words in your writing. Some writers get really stressed over doing so, but as you point out, it’s part of the journey.

      Post a Reply
  9. This is great Jeri! I’ve learned so much from you. Seriously, when I write now I’m constantly asking myself if I need that extra word to make my point. I copied your list and tips so this will be something else I can work on. Thanks!

    Post a Reply
    • Marty, that’s awesome! It’s good to know I am spreading my love of chopping out words across blogland 🙂

      Post a Reply
  10. Filter words slip into my writing all the time. Great list. I use the “find/replace” function in Word to seek them out when self editing.

    Post a Reply
    • Stacy, using the find/replace feature can help save a ton of time when editing. I wish more writers would utilize its magical powers!

      Post a Reply
  11. “If you want your novel to suck less, try cutting out filter words.” Bwahahaha! What about if you want your novel to not suck at all?!!

    Great post, Jeri. I think these are the kinds of words that creep in, so yes, must keep all three roving eyes open for them and cut them during early edits.

    Post a Reply
  12. This is off the chart! I will go through the short story I’m writing and look for the fussy filters that are holding it back. Thanks!

    Post a Reply
    • Marvin, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It’s always appreciated when new readers chime in.

      Post a Reply
  13. Fantastic post Jeri. Concise and informative. And wow, I look forward to reading YOUR story some day! 🙂

    Post a Reply
    • Debby, it will be awhile before I can process my story in nonfiction form. I’m sure I’ll be drawing on it for fiction inspiration for a time and possibly tinkering with bits of it for magazine pieces.

      Post a Reply
  14. That was a very fascinating exercise, Jeri (and somehow I thought the example was true!)

    You made a very strong case for unfiltered writing. I shall try and be more conscious of that when I am writing. Thx!

    Post a Reply
    • Doreen, the example is indeed true. This post was a long time coming as I find myself commenting and fixing the use of filter words a lot when I am editing manuscripts.

      Post a Reply
  15. OMGGGGGGGOSH,
    fabulous.
    Somebody asked me, “What is your favorite part about the writing process?”
    I said, “Deleting.”
    Hell, now I need to go back and find out how many of those words are in my essays, stories, poetry.
    WOW.
    I’m scared!
    PS. amazing how the second sentence POP and become STRONGER!
    LOVE!!!
    PS. Stephen King must ADORE you.
    x

    Post a Reply
  16. Thank you for such a simple and insightful explanation of the use of filter words. Your examples helped tremendously. I definitely need to work on this.

    Post a Reply
    • Jan, I’m glad you found the post helpful. I always go back and forth on how long posts should be. This one find a good balance between being informative and not overly long, I think.

      Post a Reply
  17. Such a clever post on what to eliminate from sentences to get the best paragraphs possible. I never thought of it like this! Eye opening (eyes looking around, lol, I hear you about that description being overused)

    Post a Reply
    • Christy, one of my pet peeves when editing is definitely emphasis on eye movement. It can be such a lazy way to convey the intended import of a scene. The tendency to do so reminds me of those shots in movies that go in for a close-up in an actor’s eyes and dramatic music plays.

      Post a Reply
  18. Very good points. I have done some research on this before. I will say though I have seen some editors which go overboard with this.
    In your example above:

    Filtered: She suddenly realized he didn’t want to be married anymore. (We’ll save the annoying use of suddenly for another day…)

    Unfiltered: He didn’t want to be married anymore.

    If you read that, the first line puts an image of what this woman might be going through, her realization about this man, who no longer wants to marry her.
    The 2nd version is very cold, as if you read it from a teleprompter. Sometimes I do think you can go overboard with unfaltering something.
    I do agree in limiting these, but not necessarily a whole sale removal of them.

    Post a Reply
    • William, I agree with your observation that the second version in that line is too cold. I’m with you in the need to limit filter words rather than remove them entirely.

      Post a Reply
  19. For a newbie who is trying to learn and make my way in your posts are like useful unasked lessons. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    Post a Reply
  20. This is a really great lesson! It makes such a difference in how the passage feels. Sometimes it can be difficult to get all those thoughts from your head to the page without using the filter words. Just goes to show the importance of editing….

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  21. I learned about filter words a year or so back, and now I notice (gasp!) them in stories I critique. Some stories are like “filter, filter, filter…”

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