Filter Words and Distancing Point of View

6 Dec

by Susan Dennard



This post has been UPDATED

and re-posted on

Pub(lishing) Crawl!


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from HarperCollins in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.


63 Responses to “Filter Words and Distancing Point of View”

  1. Meagan Spooner December 6, 2010 at 12:46 AM #

    What a fantastic post! I actually just picked up a brand new YA debut that has been getting a lot of hype and was disappointed for the same reasons–I wonder if it’s the same one. At any rate, it definitely suffers from the same problem with filter words, especially common in first person present.

    I have a tendency to do this in my YA writing more so than anything else, because for me YA is all about the protagonist, who is usually feeling isolated for some reason or another. Filter words make me, as the author, feel as though I’m emphasizing that distance–in reality, more often than not, I’m just distancing the reader from the character.

    Great list of filter words! I feel a ctrl+f fest coming on…

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 2:02 AM #

      Thanks, Meagan. I’m wondering if we read the same YA too… 😉 I do this in my first drafts as well — holy crow, I have so many in my WIP right now! I have to keep my red pen constantly handy to fix this in revisions.

  2. Angela December 6, 2010 at 1:27 AM #

    What an amazing post! I`ve completed a novel written in first person a month ago, and I have a feeling that it`s filled with filter words. I`ll have to make note of that when I start editing.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 2:04 AM #

      Thanks, Angela! When you start the “search and destruction” of filter words, it takes some concentration, you know? I always have to remind myself to do it for the first few chapters, but then it becomes habit. You get so used to catching those words that it starts to grate on your nerves every time you read them! Like me reading this YA novel… My red pen was itching do some work… 🙂

  3. Becca C. December 6, 2010 at 2:46 AM #

    You totally put into words something I’ve always had to work on in my WIPs! Thanks for reminding me of this silly pitfall, I’ll add filter words to my editing hit list for my next round of revisions.

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 2:49 AM #

      Glad I could help, Becca! Good luck with revisions. 😀

  4. Sammy Bina December 6, 2010 at 2:52 AM #

    You just saved me hours and hours of editing ❤

    Seriously, the first draft of my WIP is full of these things, and as I'm revising it it's getting easier to spot them. And now that this post will be on my mind for a while, I'll probably be finding less of them.

    You're my hero, Sooz!

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 2:55 AM #

      Hahaha — I love being someone’s hero.

      And I’m glad my post was useful for you!! ❤ ❤

  5. K@ December 6, 2010 at 4:36 AM #

    I’d have to agree with all of the above comments. I think we use filter words in the same way we often use passive voice. Because it’s so common in our regular speech, it becomes common in our writing.

    To your last point, a lot of the use of filter words is also to keep from causing POV shifts. We can use action to describe the way a non-POV character thinks, but that action will still be interpreted by the narrator. And SOMETIMES filter words come in handy then. 🙂

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 5:56 AM #

      I agree 100% if a POV character is viewing a non-POV character! A filter word can be critical then! Depends on what you want to imply, of course.

      It’s the difference in saying, “I think she might be ticked off…” verus “She’s ticked off.”


  6. M. Howalt December 6, 2010 at 5:06 AM #

    Thank you! It was nice to read this. I think a lot of people are guilty of putting in that sort of filter words in their first drafts. – I know I am. Sometimes it can be efficient to distance the reader from the protagonist (or the protagonist from him/herself) or like K@ said to avoid POV shifts. But really often, I find (there’s possibly one for the list. Although in this context it’s important that I do the finding, since it’s just my opinion I’m stating and not a universal truth ;)) that the narrative gets much more powerful without the filter words.

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 5:58 AM #

      Yeah, M. It’s all about how much distance you *want* to create, you know? Typically in first person present, we want the reader to be living the story with the MC, but not always… 🙂

  7. kaemccrae December 6, 2010 at 5:17 AM #

    This is EXACTLY the problem I had while writing the first draft of the first draft (ha! life.) of Cynosure.
    In terms of writing style, I mean. There were maaaany other problems as well. But those don’t need to be dipped into. ; D

    It was very strange. I normally write very immediately in a third person past tense voice – you know what I mean. Very in-head. But for some reason, when I started into Cyno’s first chapter, my MC’s voice just completely escaped me and suddenly I was in out-of-body mode.

    Writing with filter words was possibly the most annoying thing I’ve ever gone through. They don’t come naturally to my writing style, so when I write them I feel them, and feel my writing become stunted.

    And it just makes you want to screaaaaam.

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 6:00 AM #

      It’s interesting because sometimes writing tight 3rd POV is easier to write without distance — especially if you’re used to it.

      I think one of the reasons we insert filter words is because, like K@ said, it’s how we speak. It’s how I would write a journal entry or how I would share a verbal story with friends.

      And you’re definitely right that you use more filters when you haven’t latched onto the MC’s voice yet. That’s my problem, for sure!

  8. Lis December 6, 2010 at 5:45 AM #

    Thanks for the aewsome post! I finally know why I don’t like most 1st person POV’s that are written in the present time, I never even thought about filter words, I just always was like “Oh my God is this annoying to read”.
    The examples were really good and showed how easily it can be fixed.

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 6:02 AM #

      I find when 1st person present is done well, I don’t even *notice* it because the writer does it so flawlessly. The same for 1st person past. BUT, when filter words abound, I notice immediately that I can’t sink into the story, and as a result, I can’t enjoy it.

  9. Laura December 6, 2010 at 6:41 AM #

    Another fabulous, informative post! Thanks 🙂

    I might be reading the same buzzed about book as you mentioned…only I couldn’t pinpoint why I felt like putting it down last night. This makes a lot of sense!

    I’m one of those people who learns by example, and I definitely don’t want people to feel the same about my book when the read it. I’m definitely going to keep this in mind as I revise!

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 6:52 AM #

      Thanks, Laura! I’m wondering now if you’re reading the same book too… A close writer friend of mine just picked up an ARC over the weekend, and she ended up hating it too. I just don’t understand how a book can get published when it’s packed with filter words — unless that’s *what* the author wants… And if that’s what the author wants, then…I’m not sure I’ll be reading anything else by that author. 😉

  10. Jules Wood December 6, 2010 at 8:29 AM #

    Excellent post! Filter words hadn’t even occurred to me, but you’re totally right; I need to update both my WIP and my critique parter’s now. Thanks for the heads up, this is eye-opening! 🙂

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 8:35 AM #

      Thanks, Jules! I don’t know if “filter words” is the official terminology, but it’s what I call it… And it’s definitely something I keep an eye on in my WIPs and my crit-partners’.

  11. Vanessa Di Gregorio December 6, 2010 at 10:16 AM #

    This is a brilliant post! I think I’m going to have to go over my MS with a fine-tooth comb (and this list!). I never actually thought about filter words… but you are so right!

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 10:30 AM #

      Thanks, V! I think a lot of people intuitively cut filter words from the MS, but… I have to make a conscious effort!!

  12. Meredith December 6, 2010 at 10:27 AM #

    This is a great post! And great examples—you can really see how filter words take you right out of the action. This is one of those things I’d never really stopped to think about, but it’s so true!

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 10:31 AM #

      Thanks, Meredith! 🙂 I don’t think most people even realize the impact those few extra words can have… But sometimes (as with this ARC I was reading), it kills the story!

  13. Brenda Agaro December 6, 2010 at 3:05 PM #

    Oh, wow…now I know what to really watch out for when reading my drafts. Didn’t even know about this before. I once started writing a novel in first person present and couldn’t bring myself to finish – maybe because of too many filters.

    Thanks! 😀

    • sdennard December 6, 2010 at 3:44 PM #

      Yeah, it’s not something I really “learned” so much as “figured out”. 🙂 Glad my post could help you!

  14. Armith-Greenleaf December 6, 2010 at 10:03 PM #

    This is precisely the biggest issue with my NaNo, now you’ve made my editing job easier, haha! Thank you. 😀

  15. lostinbelieving December 11, 2010 at 1:08 AM #

    Wow, you are so right. I noticed I was doing this in my own writing, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. Thanks a ton !

  16. Robert C Roman December 21, 2010 at 8:30 PM #

    Thanks for the great advice! Generally I write third person past, but I’ve had an idea for a first person bouncing in my head for a while now. My problem is that I’ve seen first person done wrong more often than I’ve seen it done rigth. I definitely need to keep this in mind when writing it.

  17. Pat December 21, 2010 at 10:52 PM #

    Either I LAY in my bed and WONDERED or I LIE in my bed and WONDER.

    This is not optional.

  18. John Wilson January 17, 2011 at 1:47 PM #

    Great post. Double benefit in that it also introduced me to you Twitter and Blog posts.

    A couple other filter words:

    • sdennard January 17, 2011 at 4:33 PM #

      Ooooh, nice additions! I especially overuse “notice”… Better do a find on my MS right now!

  19. John Wilson January 21, 2011 at 3:57 PM #

    Thank you again for the great post. Even the most mechanical find and check has taken over 3500 words from a novel draft and I REALLY like the picked up pace.

    “Filter Words” seems well on its way to being a standard term. On my own list, I’ve called them “distancing words” since that is what they do: they take the reader out of the scene and into a second-hand (even if first person) perspective.

    • Susan January 21, 2011 at 4:03 PM #

      That’s so great to hear, John — that you managed to pick up the pace, I mean. I’m really glad I could help!! 😀

  20. Tash May 22, 2011 at 12:32 AM #

    This is a really useful post and something I hadn’t even thought about. Now I take the time and care to make sure I don’t include so many filter words. It’s hard sometimes even though I’ve got my MC’s voice but I’ll definitely look out for it whilst taking my red pen to my manuscript.

  21. Safferina June 29, 2011 at 11:24 PM #

    Great post!!!
    This was exactly what I was noticing with my writing. And I had to be conscious of those pesky filter words. You can really feel closer with the story, and its less annoying with the repetitions of I see and I feel etc…
    Thanks for the great advice

    • Susan June 30, 2011 at 7:27 AM #

      Oh yes–these can really crop up in my writing. Especially first drafts!! I’m glad this was helpful for you!! 😀

  22. John Wilson June 30, 2011 at 11:44 PM #

    I’ve found places where I also filter with phrases and whole sentences. For instance:

    “Either not noticing his nodding off or ignoring it, she continued with her next question.” (Because the POV character can’t know what she notices or her motives, I include his ambiguity forcing the reader through his POV. I could skip the whole Either/or clause or remove the filter with “Not noticing his nodding off, she continued with her next question.”

    I’ve found a couple whole sentences that do nothing but explain why POV character is unclear or whatever it is when it serves no purpose and yanks the reader out of the story.

    At least I now have the filter idea–and lots of practice–and notice them.

  23. K, the Popinjay. August 29, 2011 at 11:27 PM #

    Wow. This was an Amazing post. As I read it I really understood what you were saying. It gave me a lot to think about in my writing and in what I read. Thanks so much.

    • Rebecca August 30, 2011 at 9:21 AM #

      be able

      …and I added nine of yours to my list! Are they endless?

  24. Tess Grant November 28, 2011 at 5:54 PM #

    Ugh! I use these all the time. I’m going through the final edits of my MS one more time. Thanks for the tip.

  25. jackiechanel December 20, 2011 at 11:25 AM #

    This is so great. I’m currently editing my WIP which I wrote in first person. Thanks for this!

  26. Melissa Sugar January 16, 2012 at 5:00 AM #

    What a helpful and informative post. I am so used to reading articles that give advice on the same writing topics over and over (I am not complaining) as they normally point out a different and subjective opinion on the topic, but it is quite refreshing to come across a topic that is not widely covered. I linked to your blog after reading Suzannah’s article on this subject over at I am glad that I discovered your blog. I am in the process of final (hopefully) revisions of my novel and I now realize that need to edit for filter words. Thank you for the very easy to follow suggestions and examples for removing filter words. Now that I have a better understanding of the concept I see how the use or overuse of filter words distances the reader from the book. I will be back to read and learn more form your blog.

    Nice to meet you.


  1. REVIEW: Beguiled by Paisley Smith | Dear Author - December 21, 2010

    […] “thought” and “felt,” which can create distance.  There’s a great article on this at Let the Words Flow.  Belle is screaming and pleading for her father’s life, but I wasn’t moved because the […]

  2. Writing hints or Things to Avoid #1 - January 20, 2011

    […] AS the article of WIS quotes, some of the data was gathered from this site: Let the Words Flow […]

  3. Links Around the Web, writing business, writing books, | How To Write Shop - January 26, 2011

    […] Here’s a nice summary about words that distance the reader from a story. […]

  4. If It Doesn’t Fit, Don’t Force It « Let The Words Flow - February 23, 2011

    […] Plus, I had MAJOR problems with too much narrative distance (1st-person present ≠ immediacy, contrary to popular belief) and filter words. […]

  5. Link dump - fritz blog - March 16, 2011

    […] Filter Words and Distancing Point of View — Let The Words Flow (Writing, Words, Words.Filter, … […]

  6. Writing With Immediacy « Let The Words Flow - March 22, 2011

    […] numerous times when trying to spot my own passive sentences. Susan’s fantastic post about using filter words has also become a go-to resource. Why? Because my first drafts are riddled with passive voice and […]

  7. Show versus Tell: Macro-, Micro-, and When to Use It « Let The Words Flow - June 29, 2011

    […] an amazing article by Chuck Palahniuk that discusses the removal of “thought” (Filter words! Something I’ve talked about before.). He really delves into the small-scale showing—it’s a must […]

  8. Filter Words? « Seven & a Half First Drafts - July 20, 2011

    […] he was referring to and read what they had to say.  (Write It Sideways talks about it and links to Let The Words Flow and Fiction Factor.  There’s also another link, but it leads to some Go Daddy page, […]

  9. Writing in a World of Distraction « Nikki McCormack - August 25, 2011

    […] Filter Words and Distancing Point of View (Let The Words FLow) […]

  10. Loving Those Links « Words That Fly - August 31, 2011

    […] Filter Words and Distancing Point of View […]

  11. Miscellanea - October 3, 2011

    […] filtering words. It’s a difficult topic to search for, so here’s a good blog post on it. I don’t like all of her examples, but it explains why adding that layer of indirection […]

  12. Things I’ve learned about writing while writing romance novels | erinmleaf - November 15, 2011

    […] Filter words. Don’t do that either. These are words that explain what the character is feeling rather than just saying it. It’s like passive voice on steroids. Try to avoid this as much as possible. For example, don’t say: She felt the wind cut through her clothes. Say: The wind cut through her clothes. […]

  13. filter words and me « Jaime Callahan - May 4, 2012

    […] the post on “Write It Sideways” and a list of filter words to watch out for in another post on the “Let the Words Flow” […]

  14. Write more books (preferably ones that don’t suck). | erinmleaf - May 30, 2012

    […] imagine. Do you know how difficult it is to avoid passive voice/hackneyed dialogue/adjective abuse? Filter words exist solely to pop up in the middle of any paragraph I write, laughing and giving me the finger. […]

  15. Writer’s Mail | Tuesdays with Story - May 11, 2018

    […] Dennard of Let the Words Flow writes that we should use filter words when they are critical to the meaning of the […]

  16. Are These Filter Words Weakening Your Story? | Matthew's Cute Reports - August 14, 2018

    […] Dennard of Let The Words Flow writes that we should use filter words when they are critical to the meaning of the […]

  17. Are These Filter Words Weakening Your Story? | Splintered Winter - December 4, 2018

    […] Dennard of Let The Words Flow writes that we should use filter words when they are critical to the meaning of the […]

  18. Nick Chiarkas – 10-Step Plan for Self-Editing: Get out of the way of the action! - September 15, 2020

    […] Dennard of Let the Words Flow writes that we should use filter words when they are critical to the meaning of the […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: