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When To Use Filter Words In Your Writing

Filter words get a bad rap; they force a writer to tell, not show; they are boring and dull and bad. When should you use filter words, and why?

hands covering eyes, hands shushing. Filter words and the senses, illustration and drawing by Katherine M Kennedy


To Dissociate The POV Character From Their Own Bodies and Thoughts.

  • Filtered: She felt her heart plummet into her stomach; her hands curl into angry claws; in the distance, she heard an animalistic cry and realized she was screaming.

  • Unfiltered: Her heart plummeted into her stomach, and her hands curled into angry claws as she screamed with animalistic fury.

Dissociation is when a person (or, in this case, a character) feels disconnected from themselves and the world. It's an out-of-body, detached feeling that can occur during heightened moments of stress and trauma. Dissociation is a very human thing, and if you're putting your character through an emotional ringer, it's not unlikely to occur. One of the ways to indicate dissociation and heighten the perception of emotional turmoil is through filter words, used sparingly and carefully. Filter words can make the reader feel as though the POV character is feeling things from outside their body. Although it is difficult to achieve successfully, I love it when writers get this right.

When Perception Is Important To The Scene

Use filter words if the act of seeing and perceiving is important in the moment, then the filter word could be required. It's going to be harder to rewrite a sentence when the filter word is pivotal to the emotional moment.

  • Filtered: I saw the door, and relief flooded my body; with a shriek of desperate happiness, I grabbed its handle, mesmerized by the smooth metal beneath my bloodied fingertips.

That the character saw the door is important to the scene, the act of seeing it results in the following flood of emotion and action.

  • Unfiltered: There the door stood. Relief flooded my body; I grabbed its handle with a shriek of desperate happiness, mesmerized by the smooth metal beneath my bloodied fingertips.

To Add Emphasis

Similar to the previous point, filter words can be used to add emphasis onto the sensory perception of the pov character. A good way to measure if you are adding emphasis through a filter word is by gauging the following sentence or idea. Is the act of seeing, touching, smelling, etc., the reason for the next idea? Sometimes sentences are stronger for a filter word or two.

  • Filtered: She looked at the ocean, and she died inside.

  • Filtered: The first time she saw him, she hated him.

  • Filtered: She heard his voice and knew she loved him.

To Limit Descriptive Writing

Overly descriptive writing can weaken rather than strengthen a scene. Prosy descriptions that take up half a page to describe the simple act of noticing, smelling, or seeing something. It's a plague, and we must destroy it.

If it takes half a page of descriptions to convey a simple idea, stick with the filter word. If you want to emphasize a moment, then often reducing the word count rather than extending it is the best way to do so.

  • Filtered: She saw the ocean. She died inside.

  • Unfiltered: The ocean swelled before her, its dark depth rolling and tumbling. She died inside.

The first sentence is more effective; it implies a mystery, and it isn't drawing a parallel between the emotional turmoil of the ocean and why she died inside. It is more interesting for brevity and leaves room for the reader's interpretation. In my opinion, anyway.

When It's An Assumption, Not A Fact

Without a filter word, sentences can become factual statements rather than assumptions or guesses. This is less risky in first person, where a narrator is assumed to be unreliable but is not as acceptable in close third or omniscient.

  • Filtered: Kim thought she heard a gunshot blast through the sky, shaking the windows in their frames. Only later did she find out it was a car backfiring.

  • Unfiltered: A gunshot blasted through the sky, shaking Kim's windows in their frames. Only later did she find out it was a car backfiring.

Without the filter word "thought," the sentence becomes factually inaccurate. A gun did not shake the window frames; a car backfiring did. She only thought it was a gunshot. In a short paragraph like this, a writer might get away with it, but in a longer text, it could be seen as misleading the reader.

Common Places That Writers Fall Into Writing With Filter Words


Often writers are self-conscious about writing descriptive scenes, so they filter them through the pov character. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this. It's a good technique to describe without info dumping. It's also often unnecessary.

  • Unfiltered: The house had stone walls with a gentle smattering of ivy hanging from each window.

  • Filtered: She saw the houses' stone walls, the gentle smattering of ivy hanging from each window.

Bridge Scenes:

A bridge scene also called a segue or transition scene, is designed to link two scenes together. The good old "Five years later…." Often bridge scenes can feel disconnected from the character, a sudden zoom out and zoom back in. The writer will instinctively try and connect the scenes through what the character smelt, heard, saw, etc.


"She looked at the ocean, smelt the salt in the air, and heard the crashing of the waves against the rocks. It would be five years before she would see the ocean again.


The smell wasn't the same, sour, metallic, and foul; even the sounds of the ocean were different; the waves didn't crash; they smacked against the cement wall, futile and angry."

Filter Words, And The Cult of Show Don't Tell

Show, don't tell might be the most overhyped advice writers give other writers. Filter words are considered a significant signifier of telling, not showing, but sometimes, we need to stop beating around the bush and just get down to brass tax, tell the reader what is happening to happening in a few words rather than showing in 5000.

When we take the advice to "show, don't tell" too far, we end up with inanities that are as tedious to write as they are to read. For your amusement, some exaggerated examples of show don't tell gone too far:

"Joan bent at the knees, curling her back and pulling herself down into her seat; she let gravity take her the last few inches, only fully relaxing once her butt met the cushion."


"Joan sat down."

"Diana lifted each leg in a rhythmic motion that propelled her forward, her arms pumped at her sides as she simulated walking, but faster."


"Diana ran."


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