Removing the Bulges from Your Story
November 30, 2015
DOES YOUR WRITING STYLE have bulges and saggy bits?
In thirty years as an editor, I’ve found the same fatty words bloating the style of many authors, especially novice writers. Certain words are notorious.
“Look” and “turn” are the words most over-used by beginner writers. Editors need only a quick glance at the first page of a manuscript. If it contains “look” and “turn”, the piece was penned by a beginner. If those words are used more than once, they may trigger instant rejection, because the author’s writing craft isn’t up to a publishable standard.
While there’s no law against those two words, they are often unnecessary. They contain empty calories without real nutrition and make your writing bloated and fat. If you cut them from your diet, your writing style immediately becomes slim, trim, tight and toned.
“Look” is the number one word over-used in beginner’s writing. Many novice writers use this word on every page; some use it several times per page.
While you could replace your many instances of “look” with synonyms (gaze, watch, glance, study, observe, peek, peer, stare, glare…) often it’s better to simply cut them.
You don’t need to tell the reader that “she looked at him”, “he looked at her” and “they looked at it”. If two people are in conversation, or aware of each other, it’s implied that they’re looking at each other. If the story describes something, it’s implied that the point-of-view character is looking at it.
Your story will work just as well without telling us that the character is looking at something or someone, and the writing will be tighter and more exciting. Try it.
Looking at him, she nodded.
She nodded at him.
He looked at her and poured her a drink.
He poured her a drink.
As he gazed at her, he scratched an ear.
He scratched an ear.
“Xxx?” she asked, looking at him.
“Xxx?” she asked him.
“Xxx?” she asked.
She looked at the mountain which towered over the valley.
The mountain towered over the valley.
Do your characters turn towards one another before they say something? Do they turn towards something before they do anything? Do they turn forward, back or around before they move?
People turn all the time. They turn here, there and everywhere, often several times per minute. You don’t need to tell us that they do – it’s implied.
Watch this especially in dialogue scenes. If Character A addresses Character B, it’s implied that A turns to B.
She turned to him and clasped his hand.
She clasped his hand.
She changed her mind, turned and hurried home.
She changed her mind and hurried home.
He turned and walked away.
He walked away.
CUT “LOOK & TURN” COMBINATIONS
Watch especially for sentences containing both words. The sentence most overused by beginner writers is “S/he turned to look/and looked at him/her” – try to avoid it, especially in your sample chapters.
Seasoned writers don’t use this sentence because they know they don’t need it.
He turned to look at her and nodded.
She turned, looked at him, and clasped his hand.
She clasped his hand.
Should you always cut “look”, “turn” and “see”? Almost always. There are a few exceptions: If a dialogue scene involves several people, and the character addresses first one person and then another, it can be helpful to use use either ‘look’ or ‘turn’ – but not both.
Use your wordprocessor’s Find & Replace tool to find out how often you’ve used those words. You may want to make sure you’re sitting comfortably with a cup of calming tea at hand, because you may get a shock, finding you’ve used those words more often than you thought. Your manuscript may be riddled with them.
You don’t need to kill every single “look” and “turn”. One of them per thousand words is fine. But if you have more, it may be a good idea to put your writing on a low-look and low-turn diet. If your manuscript contains more than a hundred “look” or “turn” per thousand words, your writing style needs serious improvement before your work is ready for publication.