If there’s one thing that makes writing weaker than anything else, it’s those blasted filter words and passive sentences. They work their way into multiple paragraphs, sucking them dry, and before you know it, your manuscript has withered away into nothingness! Okay, not really. But they are a nuisance, and they do tend to sprout in unwanted places, making your writing less than awesome. So how do you identify filter words and passive lines, and how do you improve them?
Identifying Weak vs. Strong
Let’s start with filter words and phrases. Filter words are ones that put a veil between the reader and the character. Instead of the reader directly experiencing the action as the narrator or main character does, they hear it through a secondhand account. Many editors (myself included) will argue that the use of filter words—effectively summarization—separates the reader from the events of the story, making it harder for them to connect with the book and its characters. Many of you might recognize this as the old show, don’t tell technique.
The upside to identifying these filter phrases is there are some key words that can tip you off. Here are a few of the main ones:
- to begin
- to try
- to seem
- to start
- to watch
- to realize
- to notice
- to look
- to feel
- to decide
- to know
- to find
- to remember
- to be able to
- to note
- to let
- to experience
- to wonder
- to touch
- to gaze
- to observe
- to help
- to become
These words won’t always indicate weak writing, but if you find one of these phrases or a variation of one, chances are pretty high that the sentence is in need of editing, even if it’s just to condense. To illustrate how filter words and phrases can distract the reader and overshadow an otherwise sound passage, here’s an example of a paragraph riddled with these creatures:
Jennifer WATCHED the school disappear and then closed her eyes, LETTING the scene slowly fill her head. She REALIZED just how slowly she was moving when she APPROACHED the finish line, and she FELT the air rush past her cheeks as she BECAME the first to finish. She heard the others behind her, but they were far enough away that she COULDN'T make out their words.
Now let’s take that same paragraph and reword, eliminating the filter words and strengthening each line:
As the school disappeared from view, Jennifer closed her eyes, the scene slowly filling her head. Her feet lunged toward the finish line in slow strides, and air rushed past her cheeks as the tape broke across her chest. She had done it. She’d won! The others straggled far behind, their words garbled in the wind.
Which paragraph would you rather read? Which one makes you feel more connected to Jennifer? Chances are, you picked the second paragraph. Not only is the veil lifted between the reader and the character using this method, the writing itself is clearer and more concise. Think of this technique as watching a movie versus a friend telling you about the same movie. While you can get a pretty good idea about what happened in a movie when your friend recounts it, the experience will likely be a more pleasant one if you see it firsthand. This technique also explains why first person and close third points of view have become popular in modern works of fiction—readers find it much easier to connect with those narrative styles.
Here are some additional articles I recommend for tackling filter words:
Taking the Active Approach
Another pest that may be inhabiting your paragraphs are passive sentences. Passive sentences are those in which the subject does not perform the action but rather the action is done unto them. While a few of these are okay, a manuscript filled with them can have the same effect as filter words and phrases: an unfortunate veil between the reader and your characters.
For example, let’s take this paragraph about a cake (because, you know, who doesn’t love a good cake?):
There WAS a three-tiered cake on the counter with chocolate icing. As I stepped closer and took a bite, I COULD TELL THERE WERE different flavors for each layer. The top layer HAD TO BE chocolate—my favorite. But the middle WAS much lighter in color, presumably a plain white cake. The bottom layer CONSISTED OF more chocolate cake, but it HAD BEEN FILLED with a gooey cherry filling. The cake TASTED absolutely delicious!
Apart from these lines being mostly passive and sprinkled with filter phrases, there’s little about the flavor and texture of the cake. After reading this passage, a reader might think, “Hey, cake sounds kind of good right about now.” But that’s not what we're after. We don’t want the reader to crave just any cake—we want them to crave that specific cake.
Here’s the same paragraph with active sentences, more descriptors, and fewer filter phrases:
A three-tiered cake sat on the counter, creamy chocolate icing covering every inch of its surface. As I stepped closer and popped a bite into my mouth, an array of flavors coated my taste buds. A powerful punch of fluffy chocolate cake—my favorite—created the first layer. A lighter-colored layer of plain white cake followed. An additional layer of chocolate cake lined the bottom, but a gooey cherry filling seeped through its pores, and a definite sweet-but-tart flavor danced on my tongue. Absolutely delicious!
To avoid passive sentences, I use a two-fold approach. The first task is to identify all the linking verbs and eliminate them wherever possible. The same is true for filter words and phrases. This may take a few attempts and sometimes even a considerable amount of wording, but that’s okay. If the changes make your sentences more powerful, the effort will be worth it. Once you’ve identified those and made necessary changes, go back through each line and apply some personification. This is an especially useful method for tackling descriptive paragraphs like the one above.
Though you may be skeptical that small changes like these make such a big difference to your manuscript, give it a try. It might take a considerable amount of time and rewording, but the process is well worth it. The result will be stronger sentences and an overall stronger manuscript.