An Easy Way to Improve Your Novel Right Now

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If you read my post on using find and replace to edit your novel, you know that I’m all about easy ways to pretty up your prose!

There are certain writing tips and tricks that get shoved around a lot: showings vs. telling, info dumps, and purple prose, for example. But there’s another big one that’s often ignored: filtering.

Filtering is when you “filter” the novel through the character’s senses, creating an extra layer of distance between the reader and the story.

There are a lot of filtering words, but here are the big ones.

Filtering Words

  • Saw
  • Heard
  • Felt
  • Tasted
  • Knew
  • Thought
  • Realized

If you’ve never heard of filtering, you might be thinking, I use these words all the time!  Unfortunately, filtering is something widely known among industry professionals (it can be a red flag that work is amateur), but it’s much less known to aspiring authors.

Let’s look at an example of text with filtering:

Tina heard a deep grown and felt breath on the back of her neck. She knew the monster was too close, and she realized the door was too far for her to get away. Her mouth tasted dry and metallic with fear, and she could feel her heart thumping against her ribs. As she turned, she saw big drops of monster spit all over the ground and knew she was done for.

The problem with all of this filtering is that it stops the reader from putting themselves in the character’s place because they are constantly reminded of their distance from the events. It’s Tina who heard the noise, not the reader. It’s Tina who tasted the fear.

So what would this look like if filtering were eliminated? There are lots of ways to get rid of filtering, and they all require you to stretch your creative muscle. Here’s one possible rewrite:

There was a deep growl and hot breath sprayed against the back of Tina’s neck. The monster was close. Too close. She squinted in the darkness, but the door was at least fifteen feet away. She’d never make it. A dry, metallic taste filled her mouth, and her heart thumped against her ribs. She turned and the toe of her shoe dipped into a puddle of monster spit. She was done for. There was no way she’d make it out now.

Do you notice how much closer you feel to the action in this second version? Do you see how much more heavily it relies on showing instead of telling?

Eliminating filtering words is an easy way to improve your writing right now.

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13 thoughts on “An Easy Way to Improve Your Novel Right Now

  1. pt says:

    I am currently searching through my novel for the various filtering words. Amazing how many of them sneak into a first draft! What is even more amazing is how easy it is to get rid of them. Word processors make this sort of editing so much faster. Of course, I think one of these very occasionally or in a specific context is okay if taking it out disturbs the mood of a passage, but most of the usages I’ve found had to go. Not only that, my writing vastly improved with this expurgation! I probably won’t worry about filter words while writing a first draft (the less I worry about such things the better!) but this is a godsend of a list for editing. Thank you!

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Awesome! I’m glad it helped you! Yes, a few filtering words can be okay at times if removing it disturbs the voice or makes the meaning unclear. But most of the time cutting them is just so much stronger.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  2. ersatz says:

    I’m about halfway through the first draft of my novel. I think this is a really useful post, and I think my writing’s definitely improved since I tried to eliminate the filtering words. However, I know that any rules in writing have exceptions, and I think I’ve found one – just wondered what you thought!

    I’ve heard that filtering is like making the reader look at the action, instead of experience the action first-hand. Realising that, I figure that a writer could be selective in whether or not to use filtering, depending on the desired effect. Usually, you obviously want the reader to feel like they’re in the action themselves.

    But the scene I’m writing at the moment has the purpose of letting the reader see the callousness of the POV character towards another character, and how little he cares about her. In the scene, I’m describing her running away, in a lot of distress. Just for a couple of sentences, I use a little filtering. The reader is getting a description of how afraid she looks, through the lens of the POV character telling us “I watched her run…” “I saw the fear in her eyes…” etc.

    It’s just a couple of sentences before it goes back to no filtering, but I think that helps the reader to understand the coldness of the POV character. If I just described the action, they might subconsciously forget that he’s seeing it all too. This way, they get the real sense that he’s the one who watches everything and does nothing to help.

    Anyway, that’s my theory! I wonder if it makes any sense…

    • Ellen_Brock says:

      Yes, that makes sense. I would try the scene with and without and see which feels stronger. Maybe have a friend or other writer read both versions too. It could work great for that purpose though if distance is what you want to create.

  3. schillingklaus says:

    I like telling and purple prose as a reader; ergo, I write accordingly, with shamelessly massive amounts of telling and purple prose. None of your taste dictatorship will ever ve able to stop me.
    Identification of readers with characters is perverse and disgusting, whence I do everything to prevent it.

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