What is filtering?

A while back I was at a huge conference where a speaker gave a lecture to a class of writers. The speaker concluded by saying this (I’m paraphrasing a little): “In writing there are no absolutes, but there are two important items to avoid: Filtering, and an overuse of adverbs.”

What the heck was filtering? She’d not mentioned it before.

I asked the writers next to me, and they shrugged. Once I got back home, I started a search. Back in those years little could be found on filtering, and it took several weeks before I understood the concept.

To picture what filtering is, picture sea sand being poured through a screen into a bucket. The screen removes any larger objects as the sand is poured. Filtering eliminates pieces, and leaves an altered product.

In fiction, the concept of filtering is similar: filtering removes something; something is prevented from reaching the story, and thus the reader.

Filtering definition in writing

In writing, filters are unnecessary words that separate the reader from the story’s action. They come between the reader’s experience and the character’s point of view.

Janet Burroway coined the term in her book Writing Fiction. She says, “As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness’. Yet when you step back and ask readers to step back and observe the observer—to look at [the character] rather than through the character—you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”

Filtering forces the reader to step back and to watch the character, rather than the action. It moves the reader away from the events on the page.

An example of filtering in writing

Let’s take a look at some writing with filtering:

Mary felt a sinking feeling as she sped across the room to yank aside the curtains. She wondered if her husband would really leave. She saw him throw the suitcase into the car and slam the door. He seemed angry as his gaze met hers. He pointed a finger, dropping his thumb like a gun. Now she knew he would go and not return. She decided to beg and ran outside, sinking to her knees on the cold cement. The car’s tires spun, and she felt the gravel spitting at her as she saw the vehicle careen onto the road.

The highlighted words come before the action and the reader is made to focus on the character rather than the event. An extra step is inserted between the reader and the story. Filters.

How to avoid filtering in writing

Now let’s look at the same piece of writing after filtering is removed:

Mary’s stomach sank as she sped across the room to yank aside the curtains. Would her husband truly go? Bill threw the suitcase into the car and slammed the door. He turned. Her gaze met his, and his eyes narrowed. He pointed a finger, dropping his thumb like a gun. A cold chill enveloped her; he would leave and not return. She ran outside, sinking to her knees on the cold cement. The car’s tires spun, spitting gravel at her as the vehicle careened onto the road.

Do you see the difference? Do you feel the difference? The reader is able to directly visualize the actions on the page; the events are up-front and immediate. In the last sentence, the reader directly views the car in its haste to depart.

Why it’s important to avoid using filters in writing

Every author has the job of pulling the reader into the story and making them identify with and care about the characters. If the author accomplishes that, the reader will be sucked into the fictional world as if they are living the events on the page. The reader will be able to sense the events as if they are in the fictional world themselves.

It’s especially difficult to avoid filters when writing in first person POV or in close third person. Problems happen when the writer inserts filters between the reader and the story. The extra words stand between the reader and the action, and reader is forced to view events at a distance—like watching a movie from the back of a theater. The reader is thus viewing the events filtered from afar instead of experiencing them directly in the front row. With the character acting as a filter, the reader is pushed away from the story.

List of common filter words

Here’s a list of common filter words. There are, of course, others.

  • to see

  • to hear

  • to think

  • to touch

  • to wonder

  • to seem

  • to decide

  • to know

  • to feel

  • to notice

  • to realize

  • to watch

  • to sound

5 examples of properly using filter words

At the beginning of this article, the speaker stated that there are no absolutes in writing. I agree, and there are exceptions for when using filters might be appropriate.

  1. Perhaps it’s essential to know what the character sees or hears.

    The question unlocked a floodgate of memories: like the times my wife and I sat hand-in-hand while the kids opened presents from under the tree, or the summer afternoons we watched them playing in the back yard.

    Here the filter word is important to this sentence.

  2. Maybe the filter word is absolutely necessary.

    I hear the hammer clang against the anvil, but the sound doesn’t register until a flying spark sears my cheek.

    This filter is critical for the meaning of the sentence.

  3. Perhaps the filter helps in understanding.

    “Wha … what did you ask? Did … did I hear right?”

    The filter word is key to perception.

  4. Sometimes there isn’t a better way to write the sentence.

    “I hear your heart. Does it beat for me?”

    This dialogue make no sense without the filter word.

  5. Or, the filter word is part of the story.

    While I lay crumpled after the fall, I could feel the blast of icy wind as it whipped along the cliff face.

    It’s important to know the main character is able to feel things in this situation.

In Burroway’s book, she says filtering is “a common fault and often difficult to recognize—although once the principle is grasped, cutting away filters is an easy means to more vivid writing.” Filtering is a tool just like any other instrument in the writer’s toolbox. But as with all tools, caution should be taken not to abuse it, because filtering pushes the readers out of the story and causes them to lose focus, even if only for a moment.

Once you understand the concept of filtering, read through your manuscript to determine if each instance is truly needed. The first draft of a story will likely contain several, but most can be eliminated to produce tighter writing.