As my critique partners and betas I’ve traded with know all too well, I’m rather sensitive about filter phrases. The more I work to try to eliminate them from my writing, the more I notice them in other people’s writing (including published works), so when I get the chance to critique, I frequently slash them from sentences or encourage the author to slash them for their sentences.
I am aware, however, that not everyone knows what I mean when I rant about filter phrases, so read this article by Chuck Palahniuk.
Have you read it? No? I’ll wait. Yes? Read it again. Seriously.
I have linked to this article so many times that all I have to do is type “chuck” in my Google chrome search bar and the article comes up before I even hit enter. To say that I think this article is important is basically the understatement of the year. Why? Because it totally changed how I look at my writing.
In case you don’t read it, filter phrases are phrases like thought, knew, remembered, realized, smelled, saw, wondered, felt, etc. that distance the reader from the narrative. Why? Because they are, essentially, filtering the events through writer-speak. They’re a form of telling and a surefire sign for you, the writer, that you could make that sentence stronger.
Let’s try a couple examples so you know what I mean. Filter phrases are bolded.
Meh: I heard something creak behind me and I wondered if I was being followed.
Fixed: Something creaked behind me. Was I being followed?
Meh: As I turned the corner, I saw him sitting against the wall, his face buried in his arms. I thought he was crying, but then he looked up at me, smiled, and I heard him say, “Hey.”
Yay!: When I turned the corner, he was sitting against the wall, his face buried in his arms. Was he…crying? But then he looked up at me and smiled. “Hey.”
So obviously these aren’t perfect examples, but hopefully you get the idea.
Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t ever use filter phrases, or that a couple filter phrases here and there will ruin your book. Like all things in writing, there are certainly situations where filters can work.
However, by and large, filter phrases are really overused, and if you take the time to hunt them down and replace them with deeper POV, I think you’ll find that your writing will be much stronger for it.
What do you think? Do you try to avoid filter phrases in your writing?