DIY Editing: Changing the filter

Here’s another biggie in the self-editing world: Filtering.

What is it?

I saw, he heard, she thought, I felt, I smelled– the list goes on. Essentially, filtering is what happens any time we’re informed that the the character is observing the world around them, rather than letting us observe right along with the character.

What’s wrong with it?

At the most basic, this is the writer informing the reader that the POV character has functioning eyes, ears, nerve endings, etc. Thank you for the info, but we already assumed as much, and having it repeatedly shoved at us can be seriously annoying.

On a technical level, it slows the pace of the story and adds unnecessary words to your word count.

Beyond that, filtering puts an unnecessary distance between the reader and the action– instead of looking through the eyes of the POV character, the POV character gets shunted into center stage and we’re reminded once again that we’re reading a book, rather than witnessing this world for ourselves.

In other words: we’re not watching a beautiful sunset, we’re watching Bill watch a beautiful sunset.

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Let’s see it in action

With: Bill could see the city in the distance.
: The city rose up in the distance.

With: Julie heard the robber’s footsteps coming closer.
Without: The robber’s footsteps moved closer.

With: She smelled sulfur whens he struck the match.
Without: She struck a match, and the sharp smell of sulfur stung her nose.

When is it a good thing?

Like being verbs, some writers will tell you never to use filtering, ever, but it does have its uses.

  • When you’re deliberately trying to distance your reader from your POV character.
  • To emphasize a disconnect between reality and what your POV character is observing– most effectively, when your POV character realizes that they’re observing something that isn’t really there.
  • If what’s being seen/heard/smelled/whatever is less important than the fact that the character is seeing/hearing/smelling it.

What can I do about it?

Like with linking verbs, the easiest way to start is with a good old-fashioned Find/Replace (Ctrl+F on the keyboard) for saw, and then another for felt, heard, watched, etc. But that can only really give you an initial count. After that point, all you can really do is go through it line by line and prune those suckers out of your prose.

Is there a common writing problem you’d like to see strung up and shot? Do you know any other good uses for filtering? Do you think I’m way off?  Tell us about it in the comments!


6 thoughts on “DIY Editing: Changing the filter

  1. I just finished reading a time travel novel called Sorrowlines, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why I hated it so much besides the boring undevelopped characters, what got me so annoyed while reading it was precisely this! I felt so disconnected from the characters at how the writer described their world and how they experienced it, it drove me crazy. Now I know why, and not to do this so much in my own writing : P


    1. Thanks for the great example, Tane.

      I think the real devil about this sort of thing is that it really is subtle– you don’t know why you feel disconnected, you just do. And then you have no way of avoiding that same effect in your own writing.


  2. I totally agree with this, and am pleased to see you blog a lot about editing. Most writers talk about the initial drafting stage (which has many challenges as well) but I think editing is much harder!


    1. Thank you~

      I’m curious, Kyoske– is there any aspect of editing in particular you have trouble with? I’m always looking for ideas about what to write on next.


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