Using filter words is a weakness of many beginning writers. Don’t feel bad. It is not unusual to see it in people who have been writing for a longer time but who have never come across a discussion about it. Probably we all had to shake off this habit at one time or another.

Some expressions have a diluting effect. If you are “filtering” action through the character’s senses—smell, touch, taste, hearing, or sight, you are most likely guilty of “telling” the reader what is happening. In most cases, there is no need to filter the experiences through the character’s eyes, ears, or other sensory receptors. It only weakens your writing.

Filtered: She saw the car go by. (The action passes through her eyes first before the reader knows about it.)

Unfiltered: The car whizzed by.

Filtered: She felt upset.(The action passes through her emotions.)

Unfiltered: She sobbed.

Filtered: The curry tasted zippy and spicy, too hot for her liking.

Unfiltered: The zip and spice of the curry burned her throat.

Filtered: She heard the sound of a train. (The action passes through her ears.)

Unfiltered: A train whistle broke the silence.


I’m sure you get the idea. Some of the following key words may alert us to filtering.

This is only a partial list of filter words. There are many, many more.

  • decide
  • felt
  • heard
  • look
  • notice
  • realize
  • recall
  • remember
  • saw
  • seem
  • sense
  • smell
  • taste
  • watch
  • wonder

If you see one of these words in your writing, take a second look and decide whether you really need to convey the filtering action to the reader. Is it vital to the story to tell the reader that the information passed through one of the character’s senses? If not, and it is self-evident that the character is experiencing what you say, why not get rid of the filter and rewrite the sentence in a stronger, more direct way?

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9 thoughts on “Filtering

  1. Pingback: Pink Snow | wordsfromanneli

  2. My critique group always catches my filter words. The WIP I’m writing is pure emotion. I’ve been trying to show how it feels inside the characters without naming the emotions. You know, give them bodily reactions to fear, heartache, anger. When I do that, they don’t seem to get which emotion I mean. 🤦‍♀️ This novel is sooo hard to write. Their critiques have been helpful though. I’ve been able to make corrections. It’s just maddening to have to fix.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is why we rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite…. But each time we can see that it’s getting better. Using body language is a big help to show emotion. Clenching a fist, a chin that quivers, eyes that droop and then flare open wide, all sorts of things. Shoulders sagging. I could go on and on. There are so many ways of showing emotion. If your critiquing group doesn’t get which emotion you mean, maybe you can do more than one body action. I know that critiquing groups can be hot and cold and somewhere in between, in the amount of help they can be to your writing. Sometimes, if it isn’t working for you, you might need to move on to another group, or reshape the membership of the group. You could meet with the group and then have more contact with one or two people (within or outside of the group) who can be helpful to you.
      Emotions can also be conveyed with dialogue, so there is another way to help it along. Maybe a combination of things. It’s a great exercise to take a paragraph that has too much filtering and rewrite it to show what’s happening without the filter words.

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      • This critique group is actually the cream of the crop. I went through dozens when I lived in Florida. Not to sound obnoxious, but when I was the leader of our group for the Florida Writer’s Association, I was able to weed-out the not-so-good or not-as-serious writers. When I moved, the good writers didn’t like the new leader and left. I guess he wasn’t “weeding out.” Those that left contacted me and we now do our critique meetings via video chat. I started back with them last summer. The only problem is that two of them in the group do not understand emotion. I’m always critiquing them on not showing enough emotion in their characters. On a technical level, they are good writers, but their stories can sometimes get boring because I don’t feel for their characters. They know that’s an issue with their own work, so when I add emotion to mine, they sometimes just don’t get it. We help each other by brainstorming on how to fix problem areas. It’s a big help, but it can also sting like the dickens.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I could write a book about a writer’s critique group. Some of the characters that came and went during the 7+ years I was in Florida would make for a good story. I can’t tell you how many joined who really didn’t care to help others, they only wanted help with their own.

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