Improve Your Writing: On Filter Phrases


Today I want to talk about something very small that can improve your writing in a big way….

The cutting out of filter phrases.

Filter phrases are words that filter the narrative of the novel through a particular character’s point of view–words such as “see, hear, feel, think, realize, know, wonder,” etc. They’re very easy to slip into your writing, especially in a first draft–and the majority of the time, you don’t need them.

Not only do you not need them, cutting them out is a simple fix that will drastically improve your writing.

For example, here is a passage I just made up:

I heard a noise and spun. Through the fog, I saw a shape emerge, vague at first, and then I began to see it more clearly. I felt a shiver of fear. I saw that it looked like a man, hunched-over, shuffling slowly towards me. I thought that if it came down to it, I could outrun him–but then I realized I had nowhere to run to.

Compare to:

A noise came from behind me. I spun. Through the fog, a shape began to emerge; vague at first, and then more clearly. A shiver of fear went through me. It looked like a man, hunched-over, shuffling slowly towards me. If it came down to it, I could outrun him–except that I had nowhere to run to.

Do you see why the second one is better?

Phrases such as “I heard”, “I saw”, “I felt”, “I thought”, and “I realized” are not necessary. We already know we’re being told the story through this particular character’s point of view, so we already know that everything that happens is what the character is seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, etc. Adding those phrases in is not only unnecessary, it weakens your writing by:

1) making it unnecessarily wordy and
2) creating a distance between your reader and the narrative. You want your reader to feel as though they are there, in the story along with your characters, so anything that distances them from the events is not good.

There are exceptions, of course. If you’re writing in third person, for example, and there are multiple characters in a scene, you may have to tell us that two characters see or hear something while another does not. But in general, a great way to tighten your writing is to do a search for any of those filter phrase words after drafting and cutting out any you don’t absolutely need.

Photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash

6 thoughts on “Improve Your Writing: On Filter Phrases

  1. Agreed. Filter words are often prime suspects in the sin of telling not showing. Removing them also adds immediacy to your writing (by removing the distance between the reader and your POV character). Good post.


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