Spiff Up Our Writing, Part 2

Research 2

In last week’s blog, Click Here I wrote about some things we can do to spiff up our writing by looking at the words we use. I recommended avoiding boring words and delayed action words.

This week, I want to look at what are sometimes called filter words. Words like felt, saw, looked, watched, think, thought, thinking. Words that apply to our senses: hear, see, touch, smell, taste. I’m not saying we need to remove every one of them. I am advocating rather that we assess whether we really need them in a particular context in the story. I’ve included a list of potential words to avoid at the end of this blog.

Sense Words

Sense words are words that can be seen as lazy writing. They are actually a form of telling. One of the tips I learned at the beginning of my writing journey was: don’t TELL me what the character saw, heard, tasted, smelled, or touched; SHOW me what the character experienced. Don’t tell us the character looked or watched. Show us what the character saw.

For example: Mary watched John angrily cross the office. This is telling. Showing might be: John crossed the office like a bull charging a red cape. If our point of view is well established, the reader will know we are seeing this through Mary’s eyes.

Or, Bobby tasted the chili and spit it out. An alternative: The chile singed Bobby’s tongue like a hot poker on bare skin. He spat out the mouthful and guzzled the glass of water. The key to avoiding many of these filter words is to establish our point of view character for the scene.

Along these lines, try to use senses we don’t usually experience in writing like taste and touch. This will add depth to both our character and the scene.

Dialog Tags

One thing I’ve noticed in my coaching and editing of other writers is a tendency to over-dramatize (for lack of better phrasing) dialog tags. Words like implored, inquired, responded, exhorted, and cajoled are a few examples of this. Another lesson I learned early on is to keep dialog tags simple. They are merely intended to tell the reader who is speaking.

When we try to use dramatic tags, we take the focus from what was said to how it was said. It is sometimes an example of the author showing off. I’ve also seen it used by authors who don’t have confidence in the dialog itself to carry the emotion.

My advice: practice writing dialog and trust the reader to get it. Many times, the spoken words can carry the full meaning without adding a dramatic tag. And we can also use action beats to show the speaker’s emotion. Tags like ‘said,’ ‘asked,’ and ‘whispered’ are usually sufficient. And some argue that even ‘asked’ is redundant because the question mark tells us it was a question.

Another pet peeve is dialog tags like gasped, laughed, chortled. We actually can’t laugh or gasp words. It’s physically impossible. Use them as an action beat, not a dialog tag. For example: Marvin gasped. “I can’t believe you said that.”

It’s even OK to avoid a tag or action beat completely if it’s clear who is speaking. However, when we have more than two characters speaking in a scene, we need to identify each speaker to avoid confusing the reader (and ourselves).

How do you handle filter words slipping into your writing?

Some Filter Words

Feel & Felt
In order to
“It” at the beginning of a sentence
Started to
To be verb forms



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