Trim out your filters to connect readers

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Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing while you remove filter words from your writing. These are words that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.


You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story. Fiction has several key elements, and none of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even first person.

Make a list of these barrier words and post it next to your computer screen:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the filter cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.


He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud


The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t even write first drafts using filters.



Slow and careful writing about love

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I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale this month. Margaret Atwood’s story about a future America dominated by religion and males, with women subjugated and forced to bear children, does contain love and passion, too.

I was struck by the passage below, so beautiful that I made a note of it in my Kindle copy of the book. The writing shows off how loving Atwood is with words of love. Here, the heroine of the book describes her illicit, secret lover, her respite after she’s lost the memory of her husband Luke.

I want to see what can be seen, of him, take him in, memorize him, save him up so I can live on the image, later: the lines of his body, the texture of his flesh, the glisten of sweat on his pelt, his long sardonic unrevealing face. I ought to have done that with Luke, paid more attention, to the details, the moles and scars, the singular creases; I didn’t and he’s fading. Day by day, night by night he recedes, and I become more faithless. For this one I’d wear pink feathers, purple stars, if that were what he wanted; or anything else, even the tail of a rabbit. But he does not require such trimmings. We make love each time as if we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that there will never be any more, for either of us, with anyone, ever. And then when there is, that too is always a surprise, extra, a gift.

Five summers ago I took a Novel seminar at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where we studied Atonement. Our instructor advised us to deliver the details of a body your character has come to know and love. Atwood gives us this as well as anybody I’ve read.

Being objective to observe the details

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Any writer who wants their prose to sparkle needs to bring details to the picture. A favorite article from my files points out that seeing without judging, objectivity, is just the sort of thing you can refine and practice from working in journalism.

I started in journalism. I’ve written nonfiction for more than 35 years, beginning with small town papers. I learned to stay detached from judging while I was telling a story’s details. Journalism just observes. The practice helped me see to picture things and places clearly. That favorite article comes from my deep files, a 29-year-old issue of the The Writer. Russell Working, the youngest winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, was once a reporter on a daily paper.

Storytelling demands detail. The image, not the idea, is supreme. Great writers have the ability to focus their powers of observation, and to describe the images that contribute symbolically or aesthetically to the whole of their work.

Working goes on to cite details in Hemingway’s classic story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. Hemingway cut his teeth on journalism. Working’s article praises this practice of detachment.

Such writing requires a kind of objectivity, an ability to detach yourself from your subject and simply observe. Writers are sometimes content to slog about in abstractions on character, rather than offering telling detail.

Working has published plenty of nonfiction, but he’s crafting short stories. Check out the beginning of his story “The Irish Martyr”. It’s part of his collection that won the Richard Sullivan Prize for Short Fiction.