Thursday, October 18, 2012

Repeat After Me: I Shall Not Write "I Heard..."

There's  a writerly niggle I've encountered in a few of the novels I've purchased lately (and my own - but thankfully that's not available for public consumption yet), and it's driving me nuts:

I heard the sound of gravel crunching under Noah's boots as he meandered up the driveway....

Carl wondered what was going on when he saw a crowd gathering in the quad...

Dave smelled the aroma of Charlie's cookies rising from the hot oven. It made his mouth water.

Did you pick it yet?

Just in case the answer is no, consider these alternatives:

Gravel crunched under Noah's boots as he meandered up the driveway.

A crowd gathered in the quad. What was going on?

The tantalising aroma of fresh-baked cookies rose from Charlie's oven. Dave's mouth watered.

Not only does the second technique use fewer words, it places the reader much deeper in the focal character's point of view (and trust me, that's never a bad thing). The closer your reader can get to feeling like they see, hear, smell and touch anything the focal character is interacting with, the more compelling your read will be.

So, hark back to the title of this post and remember: every time you come across the phrase "I heard / saw / smelled / noticed..." or "Devon heard / saw / smelled / noticed..." eradicate it. Push the reader deeper. Don't tell them what the character is aware of. Let them hear, see, smell and notice through the character's eyes.


Your Turn: Why do you think we often fall into this kind of phrasing? How do you bring your reader deeper into your novel?


  1. This is great advice. Some others to chop out: realized, thought, felt.

    Susan Dennard (author of SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY) talked about this on her blog a while back and it always stayed with me. I try to avoid those "filter words" at all costs. It's such a subtle change but it makes a huge impact in the long run.

  2. I completely agree with you. Trying so hard to get to this point in my novel, but writing 'he heard' is just so much easier somehow!

    1. I know what you mean, Rinelle. And since I keep hitting this in published (traditionally, and self-published) clearly we aren't alone!

  3. Definitely something I am guilty of in first drafts but noted for revisions! A good tip

  4. Great tip! I never really thought about this before, but now I'm going to have to watch out for all the filter words. I have a feeling I use a lot.

  5. Oh yes, I'm familiar with this! I do it a lot, especially if I'm trying to get a scene down quickly -- I think I type these phrases without even realising I'm doing it!

  6. Great post. That drives me nuts when I read it...even in my own work. How those words get past my inner filter I will never know. :)

  7. I always find myself excited when "Seeking the Write Life" pops up in my email. You provide such great tips and things to keep in mind. Problem is, the desire to go back and rewrite previously published manuscripts festers, haha. I just gotta focus on improving each new project :)

  8. Aimee,
    I'm so glad to have found you. You just gained a subscriber and a twitter follower!

  9. It's so easy to do this when writing first drafts. Thanks for the reminder, I'll add it to my editing tips!

  10. Couldn't agree more. Lazy writing.

  11. I know I've been guilty of this from time to time. Your examples help to demonstrate why these phrases are worth eradicating though! :-)