Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Writer Unfiltered

Filters are usually a good thing. The oil filter in your car makes the engine run better, the filter in your heater cleans the air you breathe, and the filter on your fish tank makes it look like this:

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Yay, filters!

In writing, though, “filters” are considered bad things. Filtering words are words that put a layer between the story and the reader. For example, “He watched a bolt of lightening strike the tree” is a filtered version of “Lightning struck the tree.” By “filtered,” in this example, I mean shitty.

So, how is this kind of filter bad when every other kind of filter is good? Easy, filter words aren’t really filter words. Filters clean things so they’re pure. Filter words are impurities. Not only are they misnamed, the name is the opposite of what they are. The story isn’t “filtered” by needlessly passing it through someone’s perspective, it’s cluttered by doing so. They shouldn’t be called filter words at all. They should be called: Words that prove my fucking filter broke and now my writing looks like this:

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Boo words that prove my fucking filter broke!

I realize they’re called “filter words” because they pass the action through a character’s perspective before it gets to the reader. The problem I have with the term is, just dragging something through something else and adding impurities is not filtering. Straining a glass of water through a pile of horseshit is just a way to add horseshit to your water. It’s not a filter.

We’ll start with the easy part: Identifying horseshit words that prove the fucking filter’s broke

I’m going to start with a list, right after I warn you about it. As far as it goes, it’s a decent list of (for lack of a better term that isn’t eight words long) filter words. It’s in past-tense because, well, I write fiction in past tense. If you use present, tweak it. As a filter-word filter, this list isn’t bad. It won’t catch them all (because there are no limits to the ways we can add horseshit to our writing) but it catches the overwhelming majority in my writing. I don’t write “He itched for another glass of tea” often enough to include “itched” on the list. When editing, I still see “itched” as a variant of “wanted” and know I’m filtering. So, long story short, the list has limitations.

Here is my list of horseshit words that prove the fucking filter’s broke.

Assumed
Believed
Could
Decided
Felt
Heard
Looked
Noted
Noticed
Realized (This is my personal Achilles’ heel)
Saw
Seemed
Sounded
Thought
Watched
Wondered

What do you do with a list of horseshit words?

Whatever you want to. It was a gift. I’ll tell you what I do, but that has a lot to do with how I like to edit myself. I’m a big fan of using the search function as an editing tool. I will go through a completed manuscript and look at every word ending in “ly” to see if it’s an adverb and, if so, whether I need a stronger verb or can just cut it. I also go through my manuscript and look at each word on that list. I look at the sentence, decide whether it’s “filtering” or not and, if it is, decide whether it needs to stay. I do it with the root (e.g., “wonder”) so I catch not only “wonder,” and “wondered,” but also “wondering.” Some, like “saw” require separate searches (“see”).

On the one hand, this is a huge fucking pain in my ass. Going through 100,000 words and looking at every use of “saw,” “see,” “seeing,” and “seen” is time consuming and tedious. On the other hand, I think the search function forces us to stop on things that we would otherwise miss in our writing. You can’t gloss over something without noticing it when it’s highlighted in yellow. When I’m stopped like that, I find I’m much more objective about my sentences.

But, whether you use the list as something to keep in mind when writing or something to keep in mind when editing or something to plug into the search function to look at individually — or, like me, shoot for all three — a list is a decent starting point.

What shouldn’t you do with a list of horseshit words?

Think of it as a list of horseshit words, for starters.

  • Not all uses of those words are filtering. “The prisoner watched the searchlight sweep the yard, timing his sprint.” He needs to watch the light to make his break. The significance here is not the light’s sweeping, it is the act of watching it. Watching is the key action in the sentence. As a general rule, when the filtering word is also the key action, it’s not filtering. If your story is about a cult brainwashing someone, that character finally “believing” may be the story’s inciting event. Inciting events are not horseshit.
  • Not all filtering is bad (the gray area). I’m editing a beautiful literary piece right now, and the opening scene is a woman giving birth under a mosquito net in Nigeria, Her anesthesia is a stick they gave her to bite down on. If every sentence was “she felt this” and “she felt that,” well, for starters I wouldn’t have just described it as beautiful. Considering the nature of the scene, the number of filter words is impressively small. This is admittedly in a gray area between non-filtering and filtering uses, because what she’s feeling is central to the chapter. The deft use of a light hand with the filtering though, clarified the picture (truly filtering it) instead of obscuring. Even by Nigerian mosquito net standards, this birth does not go well, and the pain is largely described as pain, not her “feeling” pain. So on those occasions when we are told what she feels, it draws us in instead of pushing us away.
  • Some filtering is good (the lesser of two evils). Filtering is often a way of avoiding the much, much bigger sin of head-hopping. Comparing the two in a legal context, filtering is like a speeding ticket — you can get away with it once in a while, but if you do it much, you’ll get caught. Do it too often, you may even lose your license. Head-hopping, on the other hand, is like using a chainsaw to decapitate nuns. Absent the zombie apocalypse, once is too often. Used with a light hand, filtering can give the benefits of head hopping without requiring you to fire up the chainsaw. Instead of hopping from one’s mind to another’s to convey “God I hate being hit on in bars,” you can stay with the first person and convey the second’s thoughts: “She looked weary, not leery. He realized she wasn’t afraid of being hit on, she was sick of it.” Without breaking POV, filtering lets you effectively communicate a second person’s thoughts. This application may be the most accurate use of the term, because you are filtering a second POV through your POV character to share the information without breaking POV. Although I still wouldn’t call it “filtering.” Let’s call that move “POV laundering.”
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