Welcome back and thanks for reading! This week on my revision series, we’re going to look into the use of filler and filter words. I’m fairly certain this is an issue for all writers, regardless of POV, tense, genre, category, etc., but as someone who just finished a first-person, past-tense novel, a lot of my examples will be of that variation. Adjust as needed.
Here we go!
Personally, I think filter words crop up when authors (myself included) go crazy trying to effectively block scenes. If you’re scratching your head at the concept of blocking scenes, no worries. I did the exact same thing. Blocking is the narrative is describing where characters are, what they’re doing, how they’re moving about the space, scenery, interactions, etc. Remember reading plays in high school/college and seeing “[ENTER STAGE LEFT]”? Basic blocking right there.
In order to depict a clear picture, we often over write and include filter words that are entirely unnecessary. Take this elementary example:
As she walked into the room, she saw a picture frame with two dogs in it. She heard the sound of running water circulating from the pet fountain on the floor. Crouching to refill it, she felt the crunch of dog food beneath her feet.
Can you pick out the filter words? They’re words that we, as the readers, can infer from the writing without having to be explicitly told. Words like saw, heard and felt are prime examples (again, adjust tense as needed. Filter words aren’t specific to POV or tense. I can look, she can look, they felt, one feels — you get the point.). I’d strongly suggest highlighting all instances of these and seeing if it’s possible to rework the sentence without them.
Remove filter words to create tighter writing that keeps your audience present.
Filter words like to masquerade as phrases, too. I, personally, was a frequent user of “the sound of,” which can generally be removed and reworked to simply describe the sound.
Note: Not all instances of saw/heard/felt/noticed/etc. need to be removed. Stay true to the voice of your work, and definitely leave it if it clarifies something, especially the surrounding actions. We’ll look at an example from my MS, using my signature “sound of” moment:
The sound of a babbling creek flowed through my ears, and I melted into the bed.
If I were to remove “the sound of” from this instance, we’d be left with:
A babbling creek flowed through my ears, and I melted into the bed.
Well isn’t that special. I dunno about you, but if there’s some form of waterboarding for ears, I don’t want to know about it. So yes, “babbling” does attest to the sound of the creek, but it doesn’t clarify the overall scene. It’s best if we leave “the sound of” in.
Filler words can be any number of things: unnecessary modifiers, meaningless words, extra words, short words, redundant actions (this was new to me until Layla so kindly pointed out the obvious nature of obvious redundancy), etc. There’s a great post about redundancy here, so I won’t go into too much detail. The short version:
- When you think, you inherently think to yourself. Saying “she thought to herself” is redundant.
- Blink. Blink again. What blinked? Your eyes. I can’t think of anything else that blinks. “Blinking your eyes” is redundant.
- And my favorite, personal culprit: sit down. I’ve never sat left or right in my life, have you? (Yes, you can “sit up” in the sense that “she sat up in excitement,” but she’s still sitting. Likely in a chair. Maybe in a bed or a couch. Again, use personal judgement, but nine times out of ten you can ditch the direction.)
There are a milieu of examples at that site, so check it out if you feel you have redundant tendencies.
Meaningless words and unnecessary modifiers … So, I get keeping some for the sake of voice, but other than that, you can likely ditch instances of “just” and “that” and “very” (of course there are others — I’m a huge advocate of doing a search and highlighting any word that you notice crops up a hundred times). If you’re not sure, trying reading the sentence without the word and see if it the meaning is retained.
Hint: If you don’t already do so, read out loud. I don’t care how silly you think you sound.
On that same train of thought, nix extra and short words that add no inherent value to the sentence. I think the easiest and biggest example that I find in all my writing is “off of.”
She jumped off of the table.
In comparison to …
She jumped off the table.
Ditch the unnecessary “of,” give yourself a pat on the back, and start highlighting. Killing words like that is a really quick way to tighten your writing and reduce your word count. Here’s another great post with an exhaustive list of filler words you can cut.
See you next time
That’s all I’ve got for now! If you need a reminder, here’s a link back to last week’s post about character sheets. Check back in next week for helpful tricks about similes and metaphors.