Monday, November 7, 2011

"seems" is not all it seems

"She seemed to begin to see as she started to blink."

Okay.  Overkill, but let's once again talk about no-nothing words.  "Seems" may look like a great word on the surface, but basically it can get in the way of that strong, punchy verb you want to highlight in your sentence.  That strong sentence is there.  You are just allowing it to be muffled by phrases like "seems" "begin to" and "start to".

Let's look at "seems" first.  And this goes for all you academics, too.  Any time you touch a finger to a keyboard, you should consider what it seems to be.  Or better, what it is or isn't or shades into gray.

First of all, you are always writing in someone's point of view.  That means that you are working with their impressions.  Whether or not there is a dragon down the street, your character will think, "Ack!  Dragon!"  That is your character's perception.  If your character isn't sure, you can still keep your strong language:  Ack!  Dragon!  She squinted.  Maybe that lumbering shape was just a wagon, and her last encounter had left her paranoid.  You keep your strong sentences, and you learn more about the character, and you still don't know if that's really a freaking dragon down the street.  "Seems" weakens your character's perceptions, and limits, in general, what you do with them.  It also tends to pull the reader out of your character's head.  Your character will have specific reactions.  "Seems" can sound as if the author is being coy--oh is or is not my character perceiving this?  Of course, that wasn't the intent, but it could be the effect, and you never want the author in there.  It's all about the character.  Even in academic writing, you are presenting a certain face to your audience and you want them to stay hooked in to that voice and that knowledge.

Let's go back to that first sentence.  "She blinked crusty eyes.  The waves of gray that had been with her all her life broke into a clean, golden vein of light.  Then tears came to her eyes to blind her even as the gray finally slipped away."  This is assuming blind chick is the pov.  Of the blind chick wasn't the pov:  "The blind beggar winced from my touch.  But then she scrubbed her eyes. Tears coursing down her cheeks, she reached up to the light."

Obviously, I took up more space.  But in writing, God is in the details, not the devil.

So going back to our original statement "She seemed to begin to see as she started to blink." let's talk about "begin to" or "started to".  My main question is, well did the person do it, or not?  "He started to shout"  Well, if he is shouting, then obviously he started at some point.  So why clutter your sentence and bury your active verb "shout".  The writing is strong, but you've unnecessarily cluttered it.

But, you stay, he just started to start when James whacked him on the head with a cudgel, so he didn't really get to shout.  Why let your reader's know this ahead of time.  It's battle!  He's shouting!  Don't give them a preview of the fact he doesn't get to finish.  That just lets your readers grow complacent that you will give them a heads up before Ronald gets hurt.  It may even bore them.  And it slows down that tight, vivid style you have--in battle or out.

Instead, let the reader be as shocked as Ronald is to get cudgeled.  He shouted, but before the rumble could reach his lips, a crack of pain drove him to the earth.  Or, if we are in Jame's point of view.  A sharp shout emerged from Ronald's lips, but with one swift blow, James silenced him.  Same effect.  Ronald barely gets to shout.  But you get that immediacy that he is doing, not trying or starting, or beginning.  The sound hits his lips, and he, and James, and the reader, and maybe even you don't know that the shout is only a beginning, and will be silenced until James brings down that cudgel.

I give one place where all these phrases can be used:  Dialogue.  Why?  In dialogue we really do hedge our bets like this.  Especially if your character either trusts nothing, or isn't very confident, or a number of other reasons you built into a character, your character may use these phrases.  But know why they use them.

Don't let little things like "began to" or "started to" or "tried to" or especially "seems" clutter your writing.  You are couching your writing with little words that make it safer.  You don't need that.  Your words are strong.  You are strong.  Trust your readers to get that powerful writing.  Trust yourself.    


  1. Whether or not there is a dragon down the street, your character will think, "Ack! Dragon!"

    This is my favorite insight: realization that "seems" isn't just harmless filler, that the word injects the writer in between the character and the reader! That gives me, as a writer, a much stronger motivation to go through and eliminate words and phrases that aren't just harmless fluffy stuff; they keeps the reader from traveling into the world I have painstakingly created, and break into the reader's identification with the character.

  2. I especially care about that "not breaking the reader's identification with the character" because of something Michigan State University's poet-in-residence Diane Wakoski said. She was talking about reading mysteries, but I think it also applies to SciFi and Fantasy: that the writer is providing an alternative world for the reader to enter. That's a paraphrase, but I think fairly accurate, and I love the perception.

  3. Excellent point. When you get a chance you should also jump on "in my opinion," "I believe," "it looks like" and similar horse pucky