Let's talk about filtering words--what they are, and why you want to use them sparingly.
Filtering words are words that put more space between the reader and the characters in a story. Instead of directly experiencing whatever the character is experiencing, filter words move the reader back so that the character's experience is being relayed to the reader by the narrator.
(Pro tip: Filter words are typically verbs revolving around the five senses and the character's thoughts and knowledge.)
Why is filtering a bad thing? Well, it isn't always. Sometimes short and to the point is fine. But filter words, by putting distance between the reader and the action, make it harder for a reader to stay immersed in a story. They keep readers at arms' length, instead of creating connections.
One good rule of thumb is that the more involved you want a reader to feel with a scene or character, the less filtering you should use.
If you want to build drama and tension in a scene, you want the reader to feel like they're there, right alongside the main character. That means you want to replace filtering words with stronger verbs that pull the reader in to the experience.
Examples of filtering verbs: to see, to hear, to feel, to touch, to smell, to taste, to know, to wonder, to realize, etc.
But using sensory descriptions is good, and helps pull in readers, you might protest. And you'd be right. But you want to do it the right way, by showing what the character is experiencing.
Filtering: I heard the birds chirping.
Without filtering: Bird songs filled the clearing, their cheerful conversations bounding from tree to tree like an avian game of Telephone.
Filtering: I smelled cinnamon rolls baking.
Without filtering: The smell of warm, yeasty dough greeted me as I walked in the door, with a hint of something else...cinnamon?
See how the filtering version could be me retelling the experience to someone later? Compare that with the non-filtering version, where I describe an experience as it's happening, as if you, the reader, are there with me. That's what you want your readers to feel.
Give it a try in your own manuscripts, or comment below with a filtered version of a sentence and a non-filtered version if you feel like sharing!
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!