Writing Tip: Don’t say what “seems” to be. Describe what IS.

This guy doesn't "seem" frustration. He IS frustrated. Punto.

This guy doesn’t “seem” frustrated. He IS frustrated. Punto.

Today’s blog post will focus on a component of weak writing I am ALWAYS, ALWAYS editing out of my drafts as much as I can. For some reason, I love to write about what “seems” to be rather than what is.

There are reasons for this tendency to rely upon verbs like “seem” and “appear,” “guess” and “suppose.” A large part of the problem, in my case, has to do with point of view.

I write in third person, with a narrator who follows one character at any given time, with occasional, deliberate head-hopping that I carefully structure. So, when I have to describe the reactions or emotions of a character who isn’t that POV character, that “focus of narration,” I don’t want to appear to be head-hopping unintentionally.

The easiest fix is to say the character “seemed distraught” or “looked as though his hope had shattered.” Otherwise, I might look to be jumping into that character’s head.

The thing is, I wouldn’t be head-hopping, not necessarily. It depends largely on the circumstance, but generally, I recognize that I have to trust my readers more. I have to trust my readers to understand that my narrator is in Character A’s head, and that when I describe Character B, what the reader is getting is Character A’s assessment of Character B: correct or incorrect, biased or unbiased.

As long as I, as the author, take the time to establish clearly which character my narrator is associated with, I can directly state that a different character is distracted, or annoyed, or angry. As those are emotions with clear visual cues, I can even describe the visual cues and let my readers infer the obvious, corresponding emotion from them. That’s best of all.

You see, readers are good at that. They aren’t stupid. When you give them the clues to follow, they’ll go where you want them to go and understand what you mean to tell them.

But what if you don’t lay down the clues well? What if your clues and your setup are too vague?

This is why you have beta readers and editors. Your beta readers will tell you when something feels wrong. When your story doesn’t make sense and one and one aren’t adding up to two, because you didn’t clearly describe one of those “ones.”

WHY “SEEM” AND ITS SYNONYMS CAN BE SLOPPY

In many ways, for me, my POV-related excuse for using “seem” and its synonyms so much in early drafts is just that: an excuse. The real truth runs much deeper:

“Seem” is imprecise. It gives you wiggle-room. It’s weak, and indirect, and doubtful. It allows me to avoid calling a spade a spade. And calling a spade is spade is never something I’m comfortable doing, especially in real life.

I hide the mask of "seeming." And I shouldn't.

I hide behind the mask of “seeming.” And I shouldn’t.

That aspect of my personality, that preference for indirectness, spills over into my writing. That wouldn’t be such a problem, if it didn’t weaken my writing so much. Compare the following examples. Which is stronger? More powerful?

  • She seemed about to cry, and he didn’t know what to do.
  • She was about to cry, and he didn’t know what to do.
  • The corners of her eyes were holding tears, and he didn’t know what to do.
  • Tom appeared angry, and Kara could understand why.
  • Tom was angry, and Kara could understand why.
  • Tom’s teeth were bared. He’d clenched his fist. Well, Kara could understand his anger.
  • His cat looked ready to run out the door as soon as he opened it.
  • His cat was ready to run out the door as soon as he opened it.
  • His cat sat on its haunches, poised to run out the door as soon as he opened it.

While using “to be” makes for a stronger sentence than using “seem” or its synonyms, because at least “to be” states what IS, overusing “to be” is an issue for a different post. Clearly, in all these examples, choice three is the best option. It’s most direct and most descriptive. It also avoids any semblance of “seeming.”

DIALOGUE VERSUS NARRATION

I want to be clear here: using “seem” verbs in dialogue is different from using “seem” verbs in narration. People speak using “seem” verbs. They employ them to avoid being too confrontational. They use them when they aren’t quite convinced of what they’re saying. They use them when they have personalities like mine.

Using such verbs in dialogue is natural and real. If they aren’t raw, at least they allow your characters to maintain a defensive shell that, ostensibly, they would want to maintain. “Seem” verbs in dialogue make sense.

  • “Did you see him in class? He looked so angry!”
  • “She seemed upset by something. Do you know what’s wrong?”

It’s really in narration–and in things like blogs– that you want to be forceful.

So, CLAIM YOUR WRITING. State what you mean, and mean what you say. Be direct. Bring a strong presence. Don’t settle for seeming, appearing, or looking like you know what you’re doing. KNOW what you’re doing, instead, and prove it. Leave your readers in no doubt.

After all, if YOU aren’t convinced enough of your points to state them directly, why should your readers be convinced?

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34 responses to “Writing Tip: Don’t say what “seems” to be. Describe what IS.

  1. I used to be guilty of using the word “seem”. I thought it was completely appropriate, then my editor pointed it out to me and I saw it in a whole new light. It occasionally slips through the cracks sometimes, but for the most part I always try to do without it. πŸ™‚

    • good for you! a limited use of “seem” isn’t a huge problem, I’d think. It’s when authors like me tend to OVERuse it to a great extent that things get sticky! Aren’t editors wonderful??? πŸ™‚

  2. Thanks for this! I am assuming this only goes for third person POV? Because if you’re writing first person, ‘seem’ and ‘appear’ and the like would indicate doubt on the part of the narrator? After all, sometimes one can be in doubt about what the other person is feeling. Of course what you say about showing rather than telling does go for each and every POV in fiction!

    • great point: I’d think what I say about using “seem” is dialogue applies to using it in first person. First person is very different. This post would be more applicable to third person POV for sure.

  3. Thank you very much for posting this. I always write in third person and am very much guilty of this one.

  4. The overuse of “seem” and similar words is one of my strongest pet peeves in writing for all the reasons you give. Another word that can be overused is “start.”

    He started to chop wood.

    Think about that for a minute. How do you “start” to chop wood? You’re either hitting the wood with the axe or you’re not! If you’ve raised the axe and not yet struck the wood, you’re not yet chopping. If you’ve struck the wood, then you are chopping. There’s no “starting” to it. Might as well say:

    He struck the wood with the axe.

    Who is to say if he will strike it again? If he doesn’t, it’s not much of a start to chopping wood.

    Ugh. See what you went and done? You got me off on a tirade. At least it probably seems that way to you. πŸ™‚

    • Michael, that’s a great observation about “start” and one I have never considered before. WOW, that’s really something to think about!!!! Thanks! There’s a lot of depth and truth to what you say there.

      A lot of times I’d say “start” is simply redundant, now that I think about it. “She started to crack the eggs.” Why not just say “She cracked the first egg” or some such thing? Awesome, awesome, awesome!!! Now I’ll have to look out for “start”

  5. Great points – though I have to say that in all your example I prefer option 2 to option 3. We all have our own mental image of what someone looks like when angry etc, and it might not conform to the teeth-gritted fist-clenched image. The simple words ‘Tom was angry’ are enough to paint a million different, reader-tailored pictures.

    But yes, we should know not ‘seems’.

    • that’s a great point, Nick! Some authors would prefer to give readers more of the power in creating the image, and that’s fine πŸ™‚ fabulous observation, thanks for pointing that out!!!

  6. toninelsonmeansbusiness

    You always have such great tips:). Thanks!

  7. ‘Seem’ is one of the words I get rid of a lot too, along with ‘really’ ‘sort of’ ‘actually’ ‘might’ and other sentence weakening words.

    Excellent post and very vital.

  8. You’ve caught one of my habits again, Victoria. I waffle and write tentative narration. Another entry for the editing book. I agree this type of writing could have a place in dialogue if the point is to get across that the character in question is a waffler πŸ™‚

  9. Once again, great post! When I’m furiously writing because I have a scene in mind I just need to get it on the page, I tend to overuse the phrases ‘seemed to’ and ‘looked like’ for lack of better prose. Also ‘seemingly’ is another weak word that slips in all too often!

    • great comment, Natasha! those words are no problem when you’re right writing and scrambling to get something on the page, I’d say πŸ™‚ I think everyone uses them because they’re so convenient and so common. The whole purpose of editing is to clear such things up.

      So I wouldn’t worry too much about it in a first draft. Definitely, I wouldn’t let it interfere with my pace and my productivity!

  10. Food 4 The Soul 93

    Such great advice you give! You can be proud of what you are doing here.

    Take care,
    Skip

  11. Pingback: Writing Tip: Don’t say what “seems” to be. Describe what IS. | Julianne Q Johnson

  12. Question – is using ‘seems’ acceptable if you are doing it deliberately to show that the character whose head you are in at the time is making an asessment or a guess based on what they think the character is feeling and they are actually wrong?

  13. Pingback: Writing Tip: Don’t say what “seems” to be. Describe what IS. | Library of Erana

  14. Thank you!! This is a pet peeve of mine, too. I’ve (almost) trained myself to stop using it in my own writing. It takes work, but it’s a big improvement in the overall effect for the reader. I’m reading a book right now (Angelopolis by Danielle Trussoni) and she uses this device frequently…characters say things like, “It was as if…”. I want to shake them! Tell me *exactly* how it is, don’t tell me what it’s almost kinda sorta like. A great point of craft to focus on!

  15. Thanks for posting. This post addresses in a very clear way one of my own weaknesses (though most of my material is in first person). “Seemed” and “appeared” can work more naturally when it’s the first-person narrator’s voice, but they still can be over-used.

  16. Yikes! It seems I’ve been guilty of this time and time again. Okay, I AM guilty of it! I don’t know why I use the word so much but I will certainly be on the lookout for it now. Great post – as usual. Thanks!

    • you’re welcome! it’s always good to recognize all the common mistakes we commit. I don’t know any writer who could legitimately say they don’t overuse words like this in first drafts πŸ™‚

  17. So excited to have found your blog! I’m an “infant” writer and find myself soaking up every bit of advice I can find. “Seems” is definitely a weakness of mine that I hadn’t recognized. Something was off, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. Thanks!

    • I’m so thrilled you’ve stopped by!!! I hope you continue to find the blog useful, Kaela! I feel as though I write especially for fledgling writers. πŸ™‚ Seems is a weakness, in particular, of tons of writers, including me. πŸ™‚

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