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Degrees of Separation

Sorry to disappoint you if you were expecting a movie review. This post is about point of view & filter words.

There are several things I'm a stickler about when it comes to editing. Eliminating filter words (or at least seriously scrutinizing each and every one) is at the top of that list.

I didn't used to feel this way. In fact, CPs used to mark my mss up worse than a toddler with a crayon, chiding merepeatedlyto get them out. Now that I've been writing and reading fiction longer, I've moved over to their camp.

"What's a filter word," you say, "and why are they bad?

Filter words are words like saw, felt, and heard. They're 'bad' because they filter the action through the POV character, thus creating an extra degree of separation between the reader and the action.

I should probably pause to point out that filtering things through the POV character when it comes to their emotions and how they interpret and relate to what's happening in the scene is good. That's not the kind of filtering I'm talking about here.

Let me illustrate using second person...
(Don't laugh. I'm a writer, not an artist. :P

If I wrote: Beth stopped when she reached the park and watched Paul, who was standing in the meadow, flying a kite, this is how the reader would experience that line.

The reader would be watching the POV character, Beth, watch Paul.

But if I wrote:
Beth stopped when she got to the park. Paul stood in the meadow, flying a kite... would be as if the reader were watching Paul right along with Beth. The reader's focus would shift from Beth stopping at the edge of the park to Paul standing in the meadow, thus removing one degree of separation and deepening POV.

Here are a few more example pairs.
See if you feel closer to the action with the second one.

Sara leaned closer to the wall and listened to the rumble of male voices.

Sara leaned closer to the wall. A rumble of male voices vibrated her ear.


My boyfriend of five years told me he was going camping with the guys this weekend, then turned and walked away. He'd forgotten my birthday. Again. 

I stood there, fuming in his wake, and decided we were over.

My boyfriend of five years told me he was going camping with the guys this weekend, then turned and walked away. He'd forgotten my birthday. Again.

I stood there, fuming in his wake. We were definitely over.


The monster towered over us, its red eyes glaring and its huge steps closing the distance at heart-stopping speed. I shrieked and watched Galen slay the beast moments before it reached me.

The monster towered over us, its red eyes glaring and its huge steps closing the distance at heart-stopping speed. I shrieked, but I couldn't move. Galen plunged his sword into the beast moments before it reached me. 


Those aren't the greatest specimens of writing, but you get the idea.

I've become so sensitized to filter words that I self-edit in first draft and rarely even write one anymore. But I know others might not be to that stage or might not like to hinder the flow of prose early on, so for them, I'll give a list.

I encourage you to do a document search of your mss for these words and eliminate as many of them as you can. You might decide to let some stay, but those should be few and far between, especially if you're writing in 3rd person.

Filter Word Offender List
see / saw
look / looked
watch / watched
hear / heard
feel / felt 
think / thought 
know / knew
notice / noticed 
note / noted
wonder / wondered
seem / seemed
decide / decided
realize / realized

Note: Even if you're writing past tense, check present tense, tooand vice versa. Phrases like 'I could see that he ___.' can easily fly under the radar if you only check one tense.


That's all for today.
Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  1. Great information! Now, to go and read through my current manuscript once I finish tearing it apart, again.

  2. Filter words don't make much room for creativity, but honestly, I don't mind reading them. I think these sentences are even easier to read, maybe because they resemble the spoken language so much. But I agree that language becomes more interesting without them.

  3. This is great! I'm not at the point wherr I self edit and spend/waste so much time fixing filter words after completing thefirst draft :(

  4. Great post! It's strange how many filter words I see now that I know about them... >_<

  5. Melissa, these are seriously fantastic tips. Really, really helpful - and the examples are perfect, actually. I know I do this all the time, and now I think I get how to fix it. Thank you!!

  6. Oh, yes. Those are so easy to insert into a story. What's great is that you un-insert in the edits. Thanks for the fun way to show these little devils for what they are.

  7. Great tip/reminder, Melissa! Thanks!! :)

  8. Huh. This isn't something I've checked myself for in the past. Yay extra work!

  9. There are a couple of words here that I'm bad about and have to check. Others I know to avoid. Great tips and great list. Love the artwork!


    Seriously, they get the point across. :D

  11. Oh, yeah. Filler words have to go. But they're hard to find in your own MS! I always use the word find to seek them out, but some manage to sneak in anyway.

  12. Excellent post--thanks for sharing!

  13. I think these tips are great. I'll be on the lookout for these filter words when I'm writing and editing. Thanks for sharing.

  14. great tips and thanks for not only sharing but for the examples.

  15. wow.. great tips. I love the examples. It really makes it clear!

  16. I'm an occasional offender, especially with "look" and "notice." Luckily, like you, I have a few CPs who beat me with sticks and have taught me to get rid of most of them. This was a great post! :)

  17. Excellent post with awesome examples. Bookmarking this one. :)

  18. Great advice. I learned this last year and then went to edit a chapter or two. I was in awe at the differece. Dragon hugs for you!

  19. I like the way you explain it. Great post! Have a great week!

  20. Excellent post - it's the kind of small, technical skill that's easy to overlook.

  21. Thanks, Melissa...I'd not given this much thought before now, but definitely will be on the lookout. Very good post and subject!

    M.L. Swift, Writer


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