Strengthen Your Prose: Distancing Verbs
For the next few articles on my “writing craft” weeks, I’m going to talk about some of the ways to improve your writing by eliminating words and phrases that weaken your prose. This week: Distancing Verbs. These are words that remove the reader one-step from the narrative. The most common offenders:
…or any version of those. Why avoid them?
– They hedge. These words can appear hesitant or unconfident. If you want to say something, say it. Have confidence in your comparisons and remove words that hesitate or hedge.
– They remind the reader that he or she is reading. A truly compelling story will draw a reader so thoroughly into the narrative that he or she is absorbed into the character’s thoughts and actions. Words like the ones above put one-step between the reader and the character.
– They are relatively weak verbs. English is a wonderful language for verbs. Use them. An occasional seem, think, feel, or see is fine, but explore the vast array of verbs available to you. You can use strong verbs without turning to purple prose.
A few examples will illustrate how these verbs weaken prose.
Problem: The sky seemed to be darker than ever.
Fix: The sky was darker than ever.
Replacing the phrase “seemed to be” with the simple verb “was” shortens the sentence and tightens the prose, and it brings the reader a little closer to the dark sky. In the first sentence, the reader might think, “it seemed that way, but was it really?”
Problem: He thought he’d never seen a girl so pretty in his life.
Fix: He’d never seen a girl so pretty in his life.
The phrase “he thought” is simply extraneous. Many times, phrases containing the word “thought” can just be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Problem: She felt sad when she thought of how the people had suffered.
Fix: Tears stung her eyes when she thought of how the people had suffered.
“Felt” often indicates telling rather than showing. It would be hard to simply eliminate it from the first sentence; you’d end up with a fragment. You could say “she saddened when she thought…” but that just sounds weird. When the word “felt” precedes an emotion, it’s probably an indication of telling. Change your sentence to show the emotion rather than tell it.
Problem: They saw two hawks circle overhead.
Fix: Two hawks circled overhead.
Again, a simple fix—eliminate the weak verb and change the other verb to the past tense. In this case, “they saw” is one of those phrases that reminds the reader he or she is reading. It pulls the reader back a step so that the reader is watching the character watch something. By telling the reader “two hawks circled overhead,” the reader can look up and “see” them for him/herself.
Bonus word! Almost
This isn’t a verb, but it’s a really common distancing or hedging word. It’s often used in tandem with “seemed”—“it seemed almost as if” or “it almost seemed like” are very common writing “sins.”
Problem: It was almost as if the trees created a canopy.
Fix: The trees created a canopy.
A Step Further
I’ve shown some simple fixes, but we’re writers—let’s push ourselves, right? Consider these fixes instead, and watch how they strengthen the sentences.
Old: The sky seemed to be darker than ever.
New: The moonless night shrouded the camp.
The second sentence shows rather than tells. It evokes feeling and sympathy in the reader and conjures a picture of death. Much better than the first sentence.
Old: He thought he’d never seen a girl so pretty in his life.
New: I’ve known a lot of women, but she outshines them all, he thought.
Aha! I kept the “thought.” In my opinion, it’s all right to use “thought” as a dialogue tag. I know there are purists who say you should only use “said,” but clearly, he’s not saying this. He doesn’t want the girl to know he thinks that, right? By putting the thought directly in his head, you connect the reader to the character more intimately. And I should note—if it were obvious in context who was thinking this, I wouldn’t bother with the tag at all.
Old: She felt sad when she thought of how the people had suffered.
New: Tears stung her eyes at the memory of bloated bellies, open sores, and the weak cries of children in the camp.
Here, I’m trying to evoke sympathy of the reader as well as the character. The character is sad, so her eyes sting with tears. But to make the reader sad as well, mention why the character sympathized. Show the reader the suffering of the people, even if it’s through memory.
Old: They saw two hawks circle overhead.
New: Two hawks flew in lazy circles overhead, their bodies rising and falling on currents of wind.
The first fix for this sentence was really fine—sometimes, “two hawks circled overhead” is plenty. But if you want to layer your story with brushstrokes of setting, these sentences are a perfect opportunity. Use the basic description as a building block to set the stage for more emotion or action. Is there a battle below? Is it just a lazy afternoon? Are falconers out with their birds? Use the words that will evoke the emotion you want to evoke in your reader.
Old: It was almost as if the trees created a canopy.
New: The forest canopy sheltered them, and she burrowed deeper into her blankets on her soft fir bough bed.
Sentences like “the trees created a canopy” are another perfect opportunity to create setting. A canopy can be dark and foreboding, comfortable and warm, or quiet and secretive. What emotion are you trying to evoke? What setting do you want to paint? Again, sometimes the simplest sentence is best, but to give your work a brushstroke of setting, find a few simple sentences and beef up the description.
I’m not advocating completely doing away with distancing verbs like seem, feel, see, and think. You need to use them occasionally. But before you send your draft off to beta readers or editors, it’s worth it to do a search for some of these offenders and make them stronger or eliminate them.