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The Little Things Novice Writers Miss: Filter Words

Today we'll switch gears a bit and discuss a small thing novice writers tend to leave in their manuscripts (rather than something they usually leave out) called filter words. They sneak into manuscripts at every stage of your career but tend to be particularly frequent when you're first starting out.

So, what are filter words?

Filter words are words like "saw," "thought," and "wondered." They are usually meant to ground you in the narrator's head, but what they really do is distance you and your readers from the story. An excess of filter words can even slow the project's pacing.

How to deal with filter words

The best way to deal with filter words is eliminating them altogether.

Take a look at this paragraph:

"She saw the soldiers ride in, their horses' hooves pounding out a sound almost like thunder. She wondered what so many could possibly want in her tiny little village. She counted fifty soldiers in all. She had thought here, in the deep north, they would be safe from the war."

It's a bit clunky. We're aware of the main character in a way that's almost painful, and the story is repeatedly paused to remind us of her existence.

Now take a look at this version:

"The soldiers rode into town, their horses' hooves pounding out a sound almost like thunder. Fifty of them, or maybe more. What did they want with her little town? Why come this far north? Was no place safe from the war?"

How did you feel reading that?

You probably felt more immersed in the story. You're focused on those soldiers and feeling the main character's fear with no pauses to distract you or lessen the pace. It also feels less repetitive, since "she" has been completely removed from the paragraph and we only refer to the main character in one sentence.

The second paragraph removes the filter words and uses questions to make the story feel more immediate. It's shorter—41 words instead of 50—but still conveys all the information from the first paragraph.

Removing filter words strengthens your manuscripts. Doing so can also save you money, since many editors charge by the word.

If you're drafting a manuscript, try to consciously notice when you use filter words. Aim to minimize their usage, but don't let it slow your writing—you can edit them out later when your project is done. Over time, you'll grow accustomed to skipping the filter words, making your first drafts cleaner.

If you're editing a manuscript, do searches for the following words:

  • Saw

  • Thought

  • Wondered

  • Felt

Look at each word’s instance and ask yourself: is this really necessary? If the answer isn't a resounding "yes," delete it. You might have to restructure a few sentences, but in most instances, simply deleting the words is enough.

Final advice

When you're first starting out, filter words often seem necessary. The readers need to know whose head they’re in and be grounded in the character's mind, right?

Here's the thing: your readers already understand when they pick up a short story or novel that they're being thrust in another person's mind. You don't need to remind them constantly. Trust your readers to know whose mind they're in without filter words’ help. Your manuscript will be better for it.

Little Things Writers Miss is a series exploring common elements of world-building, character development, and story that novice writers often neglect. Every month on the 15th and 30th (or the closest weekdays), we will explore two of the little things writers miss to help writers identify and eliminate issues in their own work.

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Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and the Write Plan content writer. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.


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