ghost moth press

Ghost Moth Press are an independent publisher of speculative fiction in Scotland

Filter words

a top down view of a laptop, notepad and coffee

– what are they & why should you remove them from your manuscript?

Should you erase filter words from your story? This is a subjective question, but one you should be thinking about.

First off, what does the term “filter words” mean? This term can sometimes sound confusing. What are you filtering, and how?

Simply put, filter words make the reader realise they are reading something! They are not immersed in the text, seeing it as if with their own eyes because the writer has TOLD them they aren’t.

Example filter words

Here are a few examples to show you what we mean. If you are writing in third person, past tense, these could be some of the filter words you might come across:

Thought, felt, saw, heard, tasted, guessed, wondered, noticed, touched, realised…

You can see that many of them are sensory, but some are internal, too. Another way to think of them is as “distancing words”. They put a space between the narrative point of view character and the reader.

But how can you get rid of them? They seem like such basic building blocks of the language!

Example: removing filter words

The easiest way is to show you. Spot the differences between these two passages:

Jeff mulled the arguments between him and Amy as he ambled down the street. The problems seemed too large in his mind. He looked up at the magnolia trees with their delicate white blooms that swayed on the branches and smelled their gorgeous scent as it soaked the air. At least not everything was bad, he thought.


Jeff ambled down the street. What to do about these arguments with Amy? It was all too problematic. The magnolia trees’ delicate white blooms swayed on the branches above as their gorgeous scent soaked the air. At least not everything in the world was bad.

A few things you might have noticed immediately:

  1. The sentences in the second example seem more efficient, leaner
  2. Jeff’s thoughts are stated on the page as if the reader were thinking them
  3. The sentence structure required some reorganization

Point 1 is a matter of taste. Sometimes you might prefer the sentences to flow a certain way for rhythm or texture.

Point 2 is a way to make a reader immersed in the prose. Asking the question “what to do about Amy?” is a way of putting you into Jeff’s brain and making you feel what he’s feeling. It’s an implicit narration technique, as opposed to an explicit one.

And point 3 may be too much to implement in an already complete 400 page manuscript! But you could use the technique to liven up some sections of your text or take it forward in new works.

Why you might consider erasing filter words

  1. Your prose becomes cleaner and leaner, giving you more space to add depth
  2. Your readers immerse themselves in the world
  3. You have to think creatively about sentence structure, which can result in a more interesting and lyrical read

Why you might not want to erase filter words from your work

Not all narrative distancing is a bad thing. Sometimes you might want to create a feeling of separation of readers and characters. Sometimes, it is just easier to get the sense and meaning across. But if you don’t know, you can’t make that choice. An easy question to ask yourself about this crafting technique: does it serve your story and readers or not?

Please bear in mind, these points mainly address a Eurocentric thought process. Different cultures might have different narrative structures and needs. But if you are aiming to sell to a market that mainly offers this kind of prose, it will be a useful tool in your belt!

Read some stories, see if you can spot the filter words, and assess how it affects you as a reader.

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