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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:

Seemed
Thought
Felt
Saw

…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.

Distancing Verbs

Seemed

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?”

Thought

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.

Felt

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.

Saw

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.

Seemed

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.

Thought

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.

Felt

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.

Saw

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.

Almost

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.

Next week: Non-human Antagonists
In two weeks: The Dreaded Adverb Problem

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25 Comments

  1. ChrisMB87 says:

    Another very well-written article, Amy. This reminds me a lot of my own editing, where I’m going back and constantly trying to get rid of those weak verbs. Looking back. it’s pretty sad to see many of “seemed to” moments.
    Keep up the excellent work!

    • I’m getting better at keeping these out of my writing as I go, but I’m still always amazed at how many sneak in when I’m not looking. 🙂 Thanks for the compliment!

      Amy

  2. Autumn2May says:

    Excellent yet again! 🙂 My first draft was filled with these particular verbs plus a boat load of adverbs that I have since eliminated. I didn’t even realize I was using them until I went back and re-read my story. 🙂 Great advice! 🙂

    • We don’t realize it–that’s the thing! I think being aware helps us avoid them as we go, but it’s always good to do a search before sending it anywhere, even after you’ve read. I’ve found that searching for some of these verbs and other problem words helps me look at my manuscript in a different way.

      Thanks for the compliment! 🙂

      Amy

  3. Glen says:

    I like how you use practical examples to demonstrate your points. Very useful.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Oh, Amy, this was excellent. I didn’t know about this blog. I can’t wait to come back for the adverbs.

    • Thanks, Kathleen! 🙂 I’m here every week… I sound like a stand-up comic… 😉 I post something on craft every two weeks and something more thematic on the other two weeks… So it alternates… I haven’t figured out a good way to describe that yet.

      Glad you found it helpful!

  5. Great article! Thanks.

  6. ibeeeg says:

    This article was interesting, and is helpful for me even though I am not a writer. I appreciate your explanations and examples. I appreciate the simplicity of how you wrote the article which helped my non-instinctive grammar/sentence structure mind. Thanks. 🙂

  7. Julie Musil says:

    I have a list of these words, and wow, when I do a search I’m amazed at how many I’ve written in there. Thanks for the great examples!

  8. A.J. Zaethe says:

    Awesome. Always trying to weed out weak verbs. But I always hear talk about the hate of the word “was’ what is your take on that?

  9. Natalie Fay says:

    Awesome post. It was well explained and the examples were perfect. Thanks for the post! (I’ll bookmark this) Waiting anxiously for the “The Dreaded Adverb Problem” post. 🙂

  10. Hey A.J.–I kept trying to reply earlier, but the site was giving me weird errors. Forgive the delay in my response!

    I think “was” is unavoidable. You can’t eliminate it completely, and trying to search for it is a good way to go Catelyn Stark on your manuscript. 🙂 However, I DO think we should try to eliminate passive voice as a rule, so I say search for particular passive phrases–there were, there was, was being, were being, etc. You might discover some that you use that are your particular sins–search for those and try to find more active ways to say the same thing.

    The good news… I think “was” is a little like “said”–so short and inoffensive that it’s basically invisible. It’s a necessary verb as long as it isn’t overused.

    Hope that helps! I’m going to go into passive voice a little more in a few weeks, by the way. 🙂

    Amy

    • A.J. Zaethe says:

      Brilliant! This couldn’t have been said any better. I have always had a hard time with trying to rid myself of “was,” but you are right. Getting rid of the phrase would be a lot more effective. I look forward to the rest of these articles. Thank you.

  11. Felt is my down fall. Thank you so much for the example on how to get rid of it. I’ve been editing my manuscript for the past few weeks, and I was stuck with the word. Turns put I needed to look at it from a different angle. Thanks!

  12. Carlie says:

    I haven’t got to the editting stage of my novel yet, but I know I’ve committed a few of the sins in your brilliantly written and helpful article.
    Is it that wrong to use those words occasionally or should we strive to eliminate them altogether (apart from the exceptions you quoted above)?
    I’ve now bookmarked this and look forward to some more of your excellent tips and very helpful examples!

    • Hi Carlie! Sorry for the delay in responding! No, I don’t think you should necessarily eliminate them altogether. Sometimes, you might want the reader to feel that detachment if it’s important to the scene or the POV you’re using. And once in a while, you might find that there’s a place where you’ve used a lot of really intense verbs and you need to bring it down a notch. My thought is that by searching for them, you can evaluate each one and see where they make sense and where you should rewrite the sentence.

      Honestly, there are no “forbidden” words in writing. It’s a matter of moderation (as with all things). 🙂

      Hope that helps!

  13. […] Next week: Words that weaken your writing. […]

  14. Haley says:

    Great post Amy. I heard about distancing verbs/ filter verbs awhile back, and I realized how much I used them in my own writing and was able to cut back my usage of them a lot… but had forgotten what they were called! I wanted to include them in a blog post of my own about easy and obvious edits, but wasn’t sure where to find outside resources on them (to prove I didn’t just make the concept up, haha). Luckily I found you. I linked to this page, I hope you don’t mind. Thanks a lot!

    http://thewritersaurus.com/2015/01/16/6-easy-edits-strengthen-final-draft/

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