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Monday, February 5, 2018

Breaking Writing Rules Right: Don't Use Filter Words

In the writing world, filter words are often considered problematic, and for good reason. You may have been told to cut back on them in your story, or you may have been told to cut all of them. But sometimes filter words are actually the best choice. Today I'm going to talk about what filter words are, why people discourage them, and five reasons you should break the rule and use them.

What's the Rule?

"Filter words" are words that filter us through the character. They are phrases such as:

He looked

She felt

Julia smelled

Derek tasted

She saw

Chris touched

London stared

. . . and it goes onward.

While not as well known as some of the other writing rules ("Show, don't tell," "Don't use 'was'"), if you look around in the writing world, you'll see there is no shortage of sources that say we shouldn't use filter words.

The Rule:

Don't use filter words.

Why it's a Rule

At first glance, phrases like, "He looked," seem rather innocent.

But they are weak for a few reasons.

1. They put the character between the audience and the story. 

On my blog, I've talked several times about how it's important for the audience to experience the story for themselves, instead of just reading about the events that happened. Only when the audience is invested and experiencing the story will the story reach its full breadth of power. (There are some stories that are exceptions of course, but they are rare.)

Filter words distance the audience just a little bit. There is a degree between them and what's happening in the story.

When we want the audience to feel as if they are in the story, we want them to get as close and as invested in what's unfolding as possible.

2. They are unnecessary. 

Often filter words don't communicate anything new in the story and can just be cut.

For example:

Aiden saw a beetle climbing up the mulberry tree.

The phrase "Aiden saw" is taking up space and can simply be cut.

A beetle climbed up the mulberry tree.

Unless you are writing from what I call "guided omniscient" or "first-person omniscient," (and sometimes even then, depending on how the narrator handles it), the fact that the sentence is even on the page implies that at least the viewpoint character of that scene saw it, if not other characters.

Say that Aiden is our viewpoint character for this scene. The fact that a beetle is mentioned at all automatically suggests that Aiden saw it, because the audience knows (if only subconsciously) that we are experiencing the story from Aiden's view.

So to say that Aiden saw the beetle is redundant and unnecessary.

If Aiden isn't the viewpoint character, but someone with the viewpoint character, we can still imply that he also saw it. Here is one way:

A beetle climbed up the mulberry tree. 

"Woah!" Aiden said, drawing closer to the trunk. "Come look!" 

Dani didn't budge. The last thing I'm going to do is get close to a bug, she thought. 

In this example, Dani is the viewpoint character, but we can clearly tell Aiden saw the beetle too.

However, I should explain that since here Aiden isn't the viewpoint character, those phrases probably aren't technically filter words, because we are seeing the scene from Dani's viewpoint, so we can't be filtering through Aiden. So if I wrote this:

A beetle climbed up the mulberry tree.

Aiden stared at it.

Dani didn't budge. Where do those bugs keep coming from? she wondered. 

I'm not sure I could agree we are "filtering" through Aiden, but it's still a phrase you might get some flack for, even though here it's communicating that Dani saw that Aiden was staring. So some people might still have a problems with it and argue against it on your manuscript.

3. They are weak verbs

Filter phrases can kill your writing quick if you use them all the time, mainly because they are weak verbs.

For example:

Marley went out back and saw the forest. He saw it was right up close to the hotel. He looked deep into the trees and saw a squirrel. He could hear a bird singing. He felt a cool breeze on his neck. A strange noise sounded to his left, and he looked to find a man sitting on a stump. Marley wondered how long he'd been there.

Do you see all those filter words? All those verbs are pretty bland and weak. You should use stronger verbs to make the story come alive.

(Hopefully you also see that all those filter words actually distance the audience, at least a little bit.)

Sometimes filter words can simply be cut, like I showed with Aiden. Other times getting rid of them takes more effort.

When you're a beginner, it's a lot harder to write without them, because, darn it, "saw," "looked," "smelled," "touched," are all verbs! And if you don't use those, well, crap, you have to find a way to get a different verb in that sentence to make it complete!

I feel your pain.

This is usually the part where the more experienced writer comes in and explains how the beginning writer needs to use more "strong verbs"--verbs that are more specific and powerful. Filter words are considered to be "weak verbs."

I still remember the first assignment back in college where I committed myself to stretching and reaching and using only strong verbs.

I was soooo slow. I looked up so many words. It was so hard. And even after that assignment, I was still at a snail's pace. I started to think it would always be like that. 

But it gets better.

And it was worth it.

When to Break it

- Establish and remind the audience who the viewpoint character is (third-person with multiple viewpoints)

Some people will probably disagree with me on this, but sometimes a nicely placed filter phrase is the best way to tell or remind the audience who the viewpoint character is. It's simple and straightforward.

If you are writing in third-person and have multiple viewpoint characters, when you start a new scene with a new viewpoint character, you've got to alert the audience to it quick.

Usually the first viewpoint character name to show up in the scene is the one the reader first assumes is the viewpoint.

Sure, there are a few ways you can do this.

For example, you could do it with an action:

Tiffany slammed her bedroom door.

But for some scene openings, the focus isn't what the character is doing, it's what the character is witnessing or feeling--that's what's important.

In the novel I'm perpetually working on, I open a scene with the viewpoint watching someone else. If I'm not using filter words, I'm going to be describing what someone--who is not the viewpoint character--is doing, and the reader is either going to get confused, assuming that person is the viewpoint character, or they are going to feel "ungrounded" and unsure how to view or interpret what they are reading.

In one of my scenes like this, I avoided using filter words, cause I mean, they are sorta bad, right?

But when I got feedback on it, a comment I got was something like, "say 'Mark looked.'" I had mixed feelings about it, but later realized it was exactly what needed to be done. It simply, quickly established whose viewpoint we were in.

See, imagine that Mark is witnessing a classmate sabotage someone else's test. And maybe because that's going to be my hook for the scene, I want to open with that in the first and second sentences.

I could just open the scene describing what that person is doing (in other words, no filter words).

Amber put her finished Honors History test on top of the rest, leafed through the stack until she found another, and promptly began erasing its answers. She didn't even look over her shoulder, only smiled. Mark still sat finishing his.

Now, sure, if Mark is a regular viewpoint character prior to this, the audience may assume he's our viewpoint character here. But if this is the first time that he's the viewpoint character or if Mark and Amber are regularly viewpoint characters, this opening might be confusing.

You can try reworking it and maybe finding other ways to communicate that Mark is the viewpoint, but maybe at this point in the story, the most powerful opening image is Amber sabotaging this test. You can appease both goals with a simple filter word.

Mark watched Amber put her finished Honors History test on top of the rest, leaf through the stack until she found another, and promptly began erasing its answers. She didn't even look over her shoulder, only smiled. Mark still sat finishing his.

When you are working in a scene that has several of your viewpoint characters in it, then in some scenes, particularly ones where the viewpoint isn't always obvious (the team of characters are working together to accomplish a physical goal, so you have a lot of physical blocking, often focusing on the group overall), then it might be helpful to your readers to occasionally remind them who the viewpoint character is through filter words.

Linda felt sick. She watched Brad and Joe climb over the wall and into shadows.

(Linda is our viewpoint character. "felt" is important in particular, because we know we can only know what the viewpoint character feels.)


Brad and Joe climbed over the wall and into shadows. 

(No filter words.)

This can also be really important when the viewpoint character knows what another person is thinking and feeling (out of being familiar with that person).

-When a viewpoint character knows another character's thoughts, emotions, or knowledge, and you need to signal to the reader that you didn't hop heads.

Imagine reading this when Linda is supposed to be our viewpoint character:

Brad held back panic and curse words.

You might think for a second that we are somehow now in Brad's viewpoint, or that it's a viewpoint error. But actually, what it is, is that Linda knows Brad so well that she can tell what he is feeling and thinking. 

So we might want to use a filter to help. 

Linda knew Brad held back panic and curse words.


Linda felt sick as she looked at Brad. He held back panic and curse words.

Assuming that it's been established that Linda knows Brad and his expressions very well, that would work. Other times you just get characters who are good at reading people, their body language and expressions, to know what they are thinking and feeling, even if they don't know the person personally.

Here, Linda's filter words remind and validate to the reader that we are in Linda's viewpoint, even though there is a line about what Brad is feeling and thinking. The author didn't suddenly hop heads.

Here is another example:

He wanted Sharon dead. Natalie considered ways he'd want it done. A fake car crash? Poison? or a disappearance? Which would he choose?

In this example, Natalie comes to a conclusion about what "He" wants.

Notice how that might get confusing without Natalie's filter.

He wanted Sharon dead. A fake car crash? Poison? or a disappearance? Which would he choose?

Depending on the scene--for example, if this line happens when Natalie is thinking back on a conversation with "him," and "he" is no longer present--you may not need filter words.

But if it is happening during a conversation with him, you should probably consider using filter words.

And again, there may be ways around these things in your particular story.

He wanted Sharon dead. Natalie bit her tongue. A fake car crash? Poison? or a disappearance? Which would he choose?

If her mouth is closed, we can assume that Natalie would be the only one to know she bit her tongue, so she must be the viewpoint character.

It should be noted that context plays a big role. What may work in one instance may not work in others. It really depends on the context you've given the reader.

- Emphasize an action over what is perceived or experienced

Remember how I touched on the idea that filter phrases contain verbs?

Sometimes the fact that a character sees something is more important than what she actually sees.

I'll give a stark example, and then get more into the details.

Imagine your viewpoint character has been temporarily blind. When his eyesight comes back, the fact he can see is maybe more important than what he sees.

I could simply write what he sees:

Bright yellow paint coated the wall.

But if he's just barely gotten back his eyesight, that might actually sound like a viewpoint error (for the average reader, we need to communicate that he sees it).

Besides, walls are kind of boring. But maybe that is the setting that he's in.

What's interesting is the fact he can see. And it's more important.

Eddy saw the bright yellow paint on the wall.

And also as I touched on, if we refuse to use filter words, we might accidentally not give the reader enough context to understand that his vision is back. They might think that our description of the wall color is actually a viewpoint error, since last they knew, Eddy was blind. In some scenes you can reword things and get around that, but in some scenes you just can't.

You may even want to use the phrase "Eddy saw" a few times to emphasize the fact he can see (stylistic choice).

Then there are sentences during conversations that read like this:

Miranda looked at Lily.

Major filter sentence, right? According to the rule, you should just skip the filter and describe what Miranda sees, which in this case would mean describing Lily's face.

But sometimes the fact Miranda looked at Lily in that moment, is more important than Lily's face. The point isn't what Miranda saw. It's that action. You know what I mean, when you are sitting and talking with people, and you say something, and someone suddenly looks at you. It's the action of looking that carries meaning.

Sometimes the fact the character sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, wonders, thinks, or feels something is more important than what the thing is.

- When you need a simple, bland, low-key beat, and don't want it to take attention away from something else.

In a few places on my blog, I've talked about naughty phrases and words like "There are" and "was" and even passive voice--filler words that don't actually communicate anything. In fact, they can be viewed as a method that actually lacks communication.

But that doesn't mean they are worthless.

We get so focused on making every word count, that we sometimes forget about the sounds and beats of our words.

Sometimes we just need that dang beat in our scene, a low-key beat that doesn't draw attention to itself--that doesn't take away attention from our real focus of the scene--it's that pause before the delivery of an important line, that part of silence during an important conversation, that preparation before a killer descriptive paragraph, that bland component that balances out complicated ideas we're trying to communicate.

Using a filter phrase can help with all those.

Sometimes it's because they communicate very little that they are perfect to use. They exist, they are there, they give us that beat, but they don't compete with what else is on the page for the reader's attention.

Sometimes "She thought for a moment," is exactly what you need. 

- Describing smells (I know it sounds random, but it's true)

When it comes to smell, at least in the English language, the verb word pool is really small. Like, seriously. What are your verb options that you can use that aren't filter words without getting weird?


For some reason our language has a lot of words that relate to stinky smells:

Funked up

But I mean, there are only so many stinky smells in the world, and yet the English language is hugely lacking when it comes to finding other strong verbs for other smells. I've probably used "wafted," "filled" and "permeated" hundreds of times, but I don't want to overuse them either, so really, my other option, other than to try to get so fancy it turns weird, is to use "smell" or "sniff"--filter words.

Frankly, I don't know how you can get through a whole novel regularly appealing to the sense of smell without using those filter words. Our language lacks dreadfully in that category.

Avoid getting too weird trying to coin strong verbs for smells.

Say "She smelled . . . "

Other Rule-breaking Posts
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Show, don't Tell"
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use 'Was'"
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Don't Use Adverbs, Adjectives"
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Only Use 'Said'"
Hiding What the Main Character Knows from the Reader


  1. Wow, I loved reading your post about filter words!
    I learned something new today and will be looking out for those pesky words.

    Dinh@Arlene's Book Club

  2. Thanks, September! I was just re-editing my dialogue/action tags in my novel for better flow and pacing, and I was stuck because sometimes the action that is happening is a filter word (He looked). I read a bunch of advice about not using filter words, but it just feels right in some scenarios. Thanks for un-sticking me. Be well! :-)

    1. Yes, people seem to forget to mention that never using filter words can also be a problem. Glad you found one that fit your passage. Thanks for commenting. All the best.


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