There’s more to bad writing than passive verbs and adverbs. There are filter words. These words put distance between the reader and your characters. Instead of being in the story watching things unfold, the reader is far away and only hearing about it. A good analogy of this is someone telling you about a movie they saw instead of you watching the movie yourself.
Like passive verbs (was, were, etc) and adverbs (generally words that end in -ly), filter words are easy to identify.
Here’s an example of common filter words: look and thought.
She looked at the man and thought he was scared.
Rather vague. What did she see?
He burst into the lobby, panting. He chose a dark corner and sank into the shadows.
Now you see him. You’re right there watching him, not watching her watching him.
Here’s a list of common filter words. Search for them in Scrivener or Word by using the “search” feature. I’ll start by naming the five senses because they’re easy to remember. If these are showing up in your draft, you’re telling, not showing.
- look, saw, see, seen, watch, observe, notice
- touch, feel, felt
- hear, heard, sound
Here are some more and they’re mostly along the lines of your character’s thinking. These words are vague and again, the reader is on the outside.
- think, thought
- know, knew
- understand, understood
A few more to add to your list.
- could, would
The word could is frequently attached to a filter word. She could understand, She could remember, She could smell.
Watch for words had, to, and that. These buggers are frequently, but not always, attached to filter words. She had decided to, She decided to, She decided that.
Filter words are traps for redundancies. She looked at him as he ran into the lobby. Again, we are watching her watching him. He ran into the lobby gives the same information in less words. It’s immediate and active even though it’s a simple sentence.
This is not a complete list of filter words. I’m not sure one exists because many words can be filter words, but these are the most common offenders. Once you become aware of filter words, you will start noticing them. It takes a bit of thinking to rewrite sentences without using them but you will see the pay off immediately.
Know of more filter words or more ways of spotting them? Add them in the comments!