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Get rid of filter words: Freshen your manuscript with this exercise

I’m a big fan of the online Lawson Writer’s Academy. When I earned my MFA, I was a poet learning how to write prose and put together a complete manuscript. Mission accomplished.

And now, through Margie Lawson’s academy, I’m learning writing craft I didn’t learn in my MFA program: How to develop deep point of view, what makes a scene click, the importance of MRUs (motivation response units) and having them in the right order, how to use dialogue cues (Margie’s term) that evoke emotion in the reader, how to use body language effectively and many other aspects of a well-written novel.

In a recent post, Margie writes about the importance of writing fresh and shares some great examples.

After reading her post, I found several places where I could freshen up my own writing. Here are some examples (I bolded the trouble spots):

Example 1:

Before:

“How are you getting home?” Noah frowned and I found my eyes tracing the outline of his lips. Lips I’d recently felt pressing against my own. Lips I’d recently tasted.

“I’ll get a ride from Lily…”

After:

“How are you getting home?” Noah shot me his I-think-you’re-making-a-big-mistake scowl.

I loved the way his lips puckered. Lips that had recently pressed against my own. Lips that tasted of sea and mountains and home.

I cleared my throat, struggling to dial down my hormones. “I’ll get a ride from Lily…”

Comment: in the before example, “frowned” is boring and overused and doesn’t describe much. The following bolded phrases, “I found, I felt, I tasted” are all filter words…it’s much better to just give the reader the experience.

Filter words are words that remove the reader from the action and filter the character’s experience through the writer’s point of view.  Instead of seeing the action through the character’s eyes, the author is filtering it first. Examples from first person point of view: I saw, I thought, I felt, I heard, etc. 

Example 2:

Before: My eyes watered as I realized just how much I missed that smile.

After: My eyes watered. Holy Moses, I missed that smile.

Comment: the filter words “I realized” take us out of deep point of view. The after example shows more character, gives us a hit of fresh writing, and keeps us in deep point of view. (I highly recommend Rhay Christou’s Deep POV class at the Lawson Academy to learn more ways to develop deep point of view).

Example 3:

Before: “You don’t understand. Things could go wrong,” I said through gritted teeth.

After: “You don’t understand. Things could go wrong,” I said, my voice thin and brittle, barely able to escape my sudden case of lockjaw.

Better After: “You don’t understand. Things could go wrong.” My voice was thin and brittle, barely able to escape my sudden case of lockjaw.

Comment: The first example “gritted teeth” is overused and in the second example I don’t need the dialogue tag, it’s stronger without.

Example 4:

Before: A tall, gray Schnauzer pranced at the end of her leash, buzzing with excitement.

After: A tall, gray Schnauzer pranced at the end of her leash, buzzing like a bee in a glass jar.

Comment: “with excitement” is telling the emotion, not showing it. The after example is fresh and fits the setting of the scene.

Example 5: (my character has found a stray cat)

Before: I felt his belly and guessed he was over 20 pounds.

After: His belly was round for his frame. He was either a world-class mouser or had a sugar daddy or three.

Comment: “I felt” is a filter word. Better to delete. The after example adds a fresh hit of humor.

Exercise: Take a chapter from your work-in-progress and on each page try to find at least one place where you can add in a hit of fresh writing whether it’s new or an edit of an existing line.

I find it helpful to copy and paste the line or paragraph I’m working on into a blank word document so that is all I see.

When done, do this exercise again—add a second hit of fresh writing to each page.

Keep doing this until you’re satisfied each page is as fresh as it can be.

I’d love for you to share some examples of your befores and afters in the comments below.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. I just stumbled on your blog and this post is really interesting. I think I’ve made all of those mistakes!
    lucy x

    December 15, 2014
    • Don’t feel alone…I have, too. 🙂 Love your blog!

      December 15, 2014
      • Thank you! I’m going back now to read your older posts for tips 🙂

        December 15, 2014
  2. I love the example of “filter words.” I haven’t come across that term in the past. Very useful!

    January 18, 2015
  3. Hello. Popped over here from Jennifer’s blog and just wanted to let you know how helpful I find this post. Will do my best to learn from this!

    March 6, 2015

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Freshen up your manuscript with this exercise | Wordslingr Magazine
  2. Words on a page
  3. Friday Bouquet #16 | Jennifer's Journal

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