As fiction writers, we’re always looking for ways to keep our prose engaging and immersive. If you’re receiving beta feedback to the contrary, or if you find yourself not fully grounded in your story as you reread, you might need to look for filtering phrases.

Filtering phrases and words increase the distance between the story and audience. Rather than showing readers what’s happening on the page, filtering phrases tell readers what’s happening. 

Telling is okay sometimes, but in general, you want to keep a sense of immediacy and depth in your prose to keep readers engaged. One way you can start showing more is by cutting most of these filtering phrases and words.

Common Filtering Phrases

Here are some common filtering phrases and words to look for in your manuscript:

  • Noticed
  • Saw
  • Watched
  • Heard
  • Tasted
  • Smelled
  • Felt
  • Thought
  • Realized
  • Decided
  • Wondered
  • Seemed

Remember, you don’t have to delete all of these words! Sometimes they’re important for a sentence, and there may even be times you want or need to filter something (more on that below).

Context is key when looking at filtering phrases and words. Use your best judgment as you self-edit.

Rewriting Filtered Phrases

Let’s rewrite a filtered paragraph so you can see the difference. The example below is made up, and the filtering phrases are bolded and underlined.

With Filtered Phrases: 

As she saw dark storm clouds rolling in off the bay, she hurried to the safety of her covered porch. She felt the familiar chill that always came with afternoon rain as goosebumps prickled her arms. She wondered why this always seemed to happen when she was getting ready to garden.


As dark storm clouds rolled in off the bay, she hurried to the safety of her covered porch. The familiar chill that always came with afternoon rain made goosebumps prickle her arms. Why did this always happen when she was getting ready to garden?

In the example above, we were able to cut out the filters while keeping the key action, description, and even make the character’s ‘wondered’ thought become a real question.

Filters are usually unnecessary, so as you review your manuscript, you’ll most likely be able to get rid of the majority of these phrases.

When can you use filters?

As always, nothing in writing is absolute, and there are reasons you may want to filter something. These include:

  • Your own narrative style or a specific character’s voice
  • Creating distance to cut tension
  • Reflect a specific mood, such as a when a character is deliberating on a certain question or topic
  • Necessary phrasing; sometimes characters do have to ‘watch’ something happen instead of being engaged
  • Showcase something like a character dissociating, where they actually feel distanced from their own experience

Just remember that too many filters can be distracting. Too many filtering phrases slow down your writing and remind readers they are not actually experiencing the story with the character(s). Obviously readers know they aren’t in the story, but they want to stay immersed and suspend their disbelief as much as possible. Filtering can make readers skim, pull them out of the narrative, and create a less immersive experience.

Minimizing Filtering Phrases

Search your manuscript for filtering phrases as one step of your self-editing process. Refer back to the list in this blog post, or write the words down in a place you can easily reference them.

Then, with each instance of filtering you find, ask yourself if it’s a necessary filter. Does it accomplish one of the goals listed earlier, or would the sentence be stronger without the filter? If you think the sentence would be stronger, try rewriting it.

In my work as a fiction editor, I see more of the sensory filters (saw, felt, heart, etc.) than any others. If you can self-edit a lot of them out, your editor can focus on other, more nuanced edits.

Need help with filtering phrases or something else in your manuscript? Contact me for a free consultation.

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