Filter words: how to include thoughts and feelings in ethnography

This blog post covers:

  • Narrative distance in ethnography
  • Filter words and reported thought

Fiction writers are lucky!

They have a range of options they can use to describe characters’ thoughts and feelings. In creative non-fiction, there are a few more constraints. We can’t go head-hopping or second guessing the thoughts of characters in a memoir or ethnography. Nor can we offer a God’s eye view of a set of events as fairy tales usually do. Memoir and ethnography are usually limited to a first-person point of view (POV) unless you are doing something experimental. (Here’s a recap on points of view if you need it.)

Here, we often gain an intimate glimpse into the world from the ethnographer’s or memorist’s perspective, either as it happens, or looking back.

Narrative distance

When the glimpse is intimate, we can say that the narrative distance is reduced. Also known as psychic distance, narrative distance refers to how close we get to the main characters in the narration. Take a look at Emma Darwin’s blog post for more on how narrative distance used in fiction. She uses an example from John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction, which describes different levels of distance (1=closest to exposition, with maximal psychic distance, 5=most intimate, with minimal psychic distance)

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.

First-person POVs are as intimate as you can get. However, watch out for abrupt shifts between exposition and close-up first-person encounters, as these can jar or pull the reader out of the narrative. Usually, you are aiming for an immersive reader experience in an ethnographic vignette, but might then switch into abstract exposition in a description of broad contextual details. Now, how can you consciously vary the narrative distance in an ethnographic vignette?

This brings us to:

Filter words: reporting thoughts and feelings

Simply put, in first-person narrative, you have limited choices. You can be immediate, or you can use filter words. These are words like:

I noticed, I perceived, I felt, I surmised, I contemplated, I repeated, I saw

These words might specify a person’s mindset or mode of experiencing something.

You can include filter words to increase narrative distance and pull the reader away from the scene and towards the act of narration.

ModeExamplesNotes
Reported thought:I concluded that she must have left soon after we had spoken.Suits a retrospective POV
Direct thought:She must have left soon after we spoke.Suits an embedded POV
Direct thought with filter words:She must have left, I concluded, soon after we spoke.Suits either

(In a third-person POV, you also have the option of including free indirect thought. This is a more advanced option that was developed by Jane Austen).

Beginner writers often overuse filter words in fiction writing.

As many anthropologists have had little explicit training in the craft of writing creative non-fiction, some will overuse them as well.

Filter words increase the narrative distance by taking us away from the scene being described.

Overuse of filter words: an example

Here’s an example from my own fieldnotes. I’ve marked filter words in red and reported actions in green:

Yesterday I went to the football match against hajduk. I bought the ticket (and some gummy sweets) early in the day as I thought there would be a crowd. Tomi had invited me up for a beer at his place, but I wanted to be more public for the fieldwork. I went down to the café in front of the stadium and bought an ice cold beer and then walked around. I saw Matija, but at first I didn’t speak with him as I didn’t get a good impression of him at the last away game.

These fieldnotes are quite boring to read, and this is largely due to the overuse of filter words and ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. This kind of empirical approach (“I did this, then I did that; I thought this when X happened,”) can be useful for precision when writing field notes, but it needs quite a lot of work to transform into a compelling and interesting narrative.

From field notes to publication:

When you move from field notes to writing an ethnography for publication, check your use of filter words. Don’t strike them all out in the name of immersing the reader, though. You might use them for necessary academic precision. You may want to describe your feelings precisely (“I felt envy”, “I felt upset”) as part of your analysis. Using filter words might also convey precise information that you help your analysis in a direct way that implying it (e.g. through dialogue) might not.

Nevertheless, cutting down on your use of filter words and doing more showing rather than telling can make for a more immersive read:

The Hajduk vs Istra match was yesterday. Anticipating a large crowd, I walked down to the shop by the stadium earlier that day to buy tickets. My phone rang. I answered, and Tomi asked, “do you want to come up to my place for a beer before the game?”

“Nah”, I said, “I’d rather hang around outside the stadium, be more social.”

I mooched around outside a café right by the stadium entrance, my mouth tingling from the cold sensation of beer. Matija glanced at me and tried to engage me in conversation; I said “hi”, nodded to acknowledge him, and carried on walking.

Here’s a commentary on the revisions:

OriginalRevisedNotes
Yesterday I went to the football match against hajduk.The Hajduk vs Istra match was yesterday.Framing – setting the scene; the revised version is more immediate.
I bought the ticket early in the day as I thought there would be a crowd.Anticipating a large crowd, I walked down to the shop by the stadium earlier that day to buy tickets.The revised version has less narrative distance and more showing rather than telling.
Tomi had invited me up for a beer at his place, but I wanted to be more public for the fieldwork.My phone rang. I answered, and Tomi asked, “do you want to come up to my place for a beer before the game?”   “Nah”, I said, “I’d rather hang around outside the stadium, be more social.”  Use of dialogue is more engaging; positions are implied rather than stated directly. [Of course, for ethnography, this depends on you remembering conversations].
I went down to the café in front of the stadium and bought an ice cold beer and then walked around.I mooched around outside a café right by the stadium entrance, my mouth tingling from the cold sensation of beer.Again, the narrative distance is decreased by describing first-person sensations rather than reporting on what I did. Use of informal language to match up with the (informal) field context.
I saw Matija, but at first I didn’t speak with him as I didn’t get a good impression of him at the last away game.  Matija glanced at me and tried to engage me in conversation; I said “hi”, nodded to acknowledge him, and carried on walking.Again, more showing than telling here.

Equally, if you are writing fiction, check to see which filter words you want to keep, and as Louise Harnby instructs, use them purposefully. If you want to write ethnography, memoir or any narrative-based social-science text that readers find compelling and that reach larger audiences, conceptual tools in the fiction-editing toolbox, such as narrative distance and filter words, can help you achieve this.

And finally, a note on writing purpose:

How important is immersion in creative non-fiction, however?

Well, that depends on your reasons for writing.

Commercial fiction is successful if it draws a large audience of readers into the story. It is compelling, immersing and engaging the reader in a world that is convincing and consistent, with emotional depth. Of course, the writer might have a bunch of messages they want to get across, but one of their main aims (their writing purpose) is to craft a compelling and exciting story.

In experimental or literary genres, this need to draw the reader in may be less pronounced. The audience may be much more select, while the social, political, spiritual or religious messages may dominate over drawing in a large readership.

Creative non-fiction genres (including academic genres such as ethnography) are different again.

In non-fiction, arguments are usually the cornerstone of a narrative, and much scholarship is judged on its ability to present and build arguments persuasively.

In these genres, the deeper writing purpose is usually to make an argument that develops through the researcher’s engagement with that setting. The same applies to oral history, although there the emphasis is more on reported narration rather than direct experience.

Ultimately, in the narrative social sciences, you will have to judge for yourself where immersion and engagement in a description is most important, and where telling and reporting come to the fore.

Resources:

[Photo by Stephen Kraakmo on Unsplash]

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