Thursday, October 08, 2009

Filter Your Words, Color Your Descriptions

By Nichole Giles

Last week I promised to impart of my newfound wisdom—gained from attendance at yet two more conferences. Have I ever told you how crucial these are to a writer? Besides the networking opportunities, the information you learn from other authors, agents, and editors is simply invaluable. Today I’m going to share some of what I learned.

I have in front of me pages and pages of notes—all handwritten, since I apparently didn’t feel like getting out my handy-dandy new netbook. You know, the one I wanted because it’s so much more portable than my honkin-huge, heavy laptop. Go figure.

So, flipping through pages, and my eyes and fingers land on a topic…

Today’s lesson will be about filter words. Don’t know what those are? Yeah, I hadn’t heard the term either, and I’ve been writing seriously for almost six years. So my attention spiked and I listened on. (Not that I wasn’t listening anyway, just saying.)

Filter words are telling words, or words that generalize an emotion rather than showing what the character is experiencing. For example, “He felt, she saw, he heard, she looked, he watched.” Also, thinker attributes fall into this category. Now do you know what I’m talking about? So basically, filter words are key telling words—and ones you would do best to avoid whenever possible. They create a distance between the reader and the viewpoint character. To avoid this separation, it’s important as a writer to focus on whatever the viewpoint character is focused on.

Instead of watching what’s happening from the outside, draw the reader into the head—and body—of the character. When your character feels scared, rather than telling your reader, “He heard a noise,” try something more like, “a loud bang echoed off the floorboards above his head, and sent a chill curling down his spine.”

Which phrase is more descriptive? And which do you better identify with? Let’s try a few more.

Instead of:

She watched the beautiful sunset.


The sun dipped below the horizon and fiery oranges and pinks burst above her head, spreading fingers of color into the darkening azure sky.

Instead of:

“He thought about his brother, and the day of his murder.”


“Memories of his brother’s lifeless body spun around in his mind—the smell of iron and salt, the sticky, bloody knife on the ground next to him—and the echoing wail of the coming ambulance as he held Jeffery’s head on his lap, willing him to live long enough for help to arrive.”

As a reader, which phrases draw you in farther? And as a writer, what can we do to avoid these pitfall filter words? Kirt Hickman gave me an awesome idea I’d love to share. Using your “find and replace” option in Microsoft Word, search each of these words, and then change their color to something other than black. You can do this by clicking the “more” option when you’re in the find and replace box. Follow the choices to font, then color, and there you go. Once you’ve colored your filter words, go through your document and rewrite those sections and /or phrases.

This same technique can be used with pet words, ‘ly’ adverbs, passive verbs, ‘as-ing’ phrases (meaning phrases starting with “as” and ending with an “ing” word) and other issues you hope to avoid. So, while you’re at it, search them all. And when you’re done, tell me your manuscript isn’t much stronger.

One thing to remember is that you will never be completely rid of any of these words or phrases, but it’s important to eliminate as many as possible.

That’s my wisdom for the day. Good luck with your search and replace. See you next week, same time, same blog. Until then, write on!



David J. West said...

True Nichole, great post. I use search and replace all the time for things just like that. I've also got that weird feeling of how much better I could have made my first book (coming soon) and all the things I can do to make book 2 that much better.

Evelyn Curtis said...
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L.T. Elliot said...

I once did that with my adverbs (in my earlier days) and that was a...colorful experience. Let me tell you how embarrassing that was.

Thankfully, it helped a lot and now I find myself avoiding those things as I write. (Aside from the one just listed above. Not adverb-free yet. *sigh*)

Nichole Giles said...

Yeah, I agree, David. The more we write, the more we learn. It only makes sense that our writing gets better with each book.

And I'm sorry to tell you this,L.T., but I don't think any of us will ever be completely adverb free. (He he, completely. =) But we can try, right?

Thanks for commenting!


Evelyn Curtis said...

So, I have applied this in my writing lately. I found myself writing a more simple sentence, one that would be flat. I looked at it, erased it, and wrote it in a more colorful and appealing way! Thanks so much for this post! It has helped me a lot!

I am also very excited, because I finally found a writing group in the same town as me. We meet on Saturday!