This article covers six common devices or “gremlins” writers use when drafting that weaken their prose, but your first draft has permission to be messy and imperfect. Use passive voice, use telling and filtering! Do anything you need to get that first draft done. I’ve committed all these devices in my draft, so don’t feel bad if you spot them in your own. We’ve figured out how to fix them.
If you’re ready to level up with your next revision or draft, here are six common devices that weaken your prose and how to avoid them.
1. Filtering — Do you need it? Sometimes
Filtering is what it sounds like. This device is when a writer filters the experience of a story through their character. It seems counterintuitive that this is bad, right? Shouldn’t I tell my story through my character? Yes and no.
Why is filtering bad? It creates psychic distance between the reader and the prose. Examples include: feel/felt, see/saw, think/thought, decide/decided, smell/smelled, notice/noticed, and the list goes on. Here’s an example of filtering.
Emma saw the blueberries on the bush. → Blueberries were on the bush.
To avoid filtering I cut Emma’s filter “saw” out of the sentence. We don’t need it because if something is written, we naturally assume the character sees it.
Instead of “it feels cold”, switch to “it’s cold.” This grounds your reader into the character without psychic distance.
On the other hand, in first person occasional filtering can be natural, especially if a character is focused on their emotions. See if you can spot the filtered sentence.
Emma’s crush bumped into her, spilling the pile of books. Emma felt her neck warm. This was so not happening.
2. The Passive Voice was written.
In my blueberry example “Blueberries were on the bush” I used passive voice. I’m not saying all sentences should be active — sometimes it’s best to say “the room was dark”, and personification can become annoying — but the more active sentences you use, the more engaged the reader will be.
To fix the passive voice, change your verb. A stronger verb instead of “were” not only changes the sentence to active voice, but also helps imply how the blueberries are on the bush.
Blueberries were on the bush. → Blueberries dotted the bush.
Strong verbs make your prose stranger and help eliminate adverbs. A great resource we’d recommend for finding different verbs is wordhippo.com .
3. Crutch Words and Phrases — Because we all need a leg up sometimes.
Crutch words are words we commonly fall back on to describe something. These include adjectives, verbs, and any other part of a sentence. Maybe you describe all cold things as “freezing” like me? Here, I’ll expose my own crutch words and phrases: it was ruined, freezing, burning, ache in his chest, stomach twisted, slid, went, crossed the room. I could go on. Even the structure of sentences can fall under this category.
I bet you’ve noticed verbs and adjectives you use a lot. How to avoid crutch words? Try replacing some of the places you use those words with stronger synonyms. Wordhippo.com is also a great resource for this.
4. Dialogue — Whose line is it anyway?
Something to eliminate from your writing are attribution tags for every line of dialogue. Readers use context and the style of dialogue to tell which character is speaking. But you can’t do this if all your characters sound the same when they speak.
Some of the common crutch words in my dialogue include “oh”, “sure”, “well”, “yeah”, and “hi/hey”. These words can be useful if given to specific characters, but make dialogue confusing if all characters use them. For example, I noticed recently that all of my characters use these words when speaking, so I assigned specific ones to each character. Julian uses “oh,” to start some of his lines, and Luca uses “well,”.
It’s not a sin to have all your characters sound the same in a first draft — we do it because it’s easy and gets the job done. But challenge yourself to differentiate your dialogue, and you’ll make stronger characters.
Something that ties in with dialogue are crutch reactions. I’m referring to the reactions after someone speaks. This could be smiling, sighing, furrowing brows, shrugging, etc. In my first draft everyone was laughing all the time?? I cut back on this reaction and used varieties like: chuckled, exhaled through her nose, laughed short.
4.5. Said isn’t dead.
Side note: use said for dialogue tags! Common words like “asked” and “said” are acceptable to use the majority of the time. Have you ever noticed a writer using “said” a lot? Exactly. We as readers are naturally trained to read over them, so be sparing about replacing said with “announced” “declared” — or the worst one, “ejaculated.” Said isn’t dead. Rant over.
5. Telling—it isn’t all bad though.
We’ve all heard the advice “show don’t tell.” But telling isn’t all bad. Telling can be a break from tension and dramatic parts. It can tell plot efficiently by speeding up scenes. Plus, not everything needs to be shown to the reader. We know what an apple looks like or how coffee tastes.
However, if you tell the reader every action like a script, your story is boring to read.
Filtering is often the culprit of telling.
Julian picked up the mug. He saw the logo of the baseball on it. He felt the warmth on his hand. The coffee tasted bitter.
Here’s the fix:
Julian picked up the mug. It was warm. The logo of the baseball hid under his thumb, the coffee bitter.
As I mentioned earlier, if something is being shown in a sentence, we assume the character has seen it. In the example sentence I’ve also avoided filtering by giving the baseball logo a verb.
You can avoid script-like telling by writing varied sentences or experimenting with structure. Maybe one sentence is description and the other action. Mix it up!
6. Gilding the Lily
Sometimes writers focus on detail by adding extra phrases and detail. I’m guilty of this. Here’s an example and how we fix it.
Julian picked up the mug. It was heavy in his hands. → Julian picked up the mug. It was heavy.
“In his hands” is an extra phrase, we know Julian is holding the mug because we’re told it’s heavy. Here’s another example.
A smile showed up on her face. → She smiled.
We know where smiles go.
Other types of extra phrases are words(adverbs) that repeat what a verb or noun implies.
He yells loudly. → He yelled.
They tip-toed silently. → They tip-toed.
She saw the green tree. → She saw the tree.
Trees are normally green, so we don’t need this adjective.
A common one I use is writing up and down.
He stood up.
She sat down.
They set the book down on the table.
He swiped the book off the table.
We don’t need the extra “up” and “down” because the verbs imply this motion.
As Terry Pratchett writes, “the first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” We use things like crutch words and filtering because they’re accessible to use. They make telling the story to ourselves easy. So don’t feel bad if you’ve written any of these in your draft — I have, too! — but when you’re ready, view your draft with fresh eyes, and prepare to level up.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.