I have fulminated about this at least once before. I’ve been doing a fair amount of critical reading recently and while my opinions on many things have changed over the years the ways some words are used still bug me for the same reasons. Here are a few of them and why they rattle my cage.
Almost, Seemed, Appeared
Pwimula Nesbytt pulled the saddle from Bismarck, her faithful battle-mole. She seemed to be upset about something.
Only seemed to be? And only about something. Do we care, do I need to worry? Either Pwimula is upset, or she isn’t. If she isn’t, don’t mention it. If she is, then you should say so, say why, and describe how she is upset – angry, tearful, irritated. Not doing so creates a false tension that implies the author, rather than the characters, is uncertain about what is happening.
Pwimula brushed away a tear as she unsaddled Bismarck. She laid her head against the side of her faithful battle-mole and listened to its faltering heart.
There’s a place in language for all words in the same way there is a place in the kitchen for everything that belongs in the kitchen. However, you don’t keep the milk in the oven or the iron in the fridge.*
I don’t like words like ‘seemed’, ‘appeared,’ ‘almost’ because they make action and emotion imprecise, and introduce uncertainty or doubt. That’s not to say they don’t work well in the right place:
‘How was she?’
‘She seemed to be upset. Then she laughed. I didn’t know what to make of it.’
He and She
I once became frustrated with the opening of a book because the main character was introduced as ‘She’. Page after page the novel wore on, and She did this and She did that. If the author had been in the room I’d have been begging on my knees, ‘For God’s sake, just tell me her name.’
This is an example of deliberate withholding for no good purpose. Another example of false tension. There’s something the reader needs to know and it doesn’t create drama, mystery or tension not telling them. In fact you’re doing your own story a disservice by not saying. The effect is distancing. And for me it is annoying.
Very rarely should the anonymous ‘He’ break the catch and slip through the window. It should at very least be the assassin, the randy lover or the desperate messenger. If it’s the hero of the story just tell us his or her name. Give the reader something to work with.
Of course ‘he said.’ And ‘she said.’ are almost always the best ways to tag dialogue.
Words ending ’ing’
There’s a place for these words (inflected verbs) but I try not to use them because I think they stifle description and flatten tone towards passive.
He was writing, he looked out the window and saw it was raining.
You can’t get away with writing ‘It rained.’ as easily as you can say ‘It was raining.’ You need to qualify ‘It rained’ with description, sensation. How was it raining? Falling like soft mist or stinging whips?
A good exercise is to go through a piece of writing, remove all your ‘ing’ words and replace them with more sense-driven phrases.
There are two main ways of doing this – character speech and writing style, often over-seasoned with rampant anachronism. Too much of either is horrid.
Buboe sprang from his artful hidey-hole. ‘Gis ‘e’ ‘ere yer blimmin’ fancies, posh boy.’
‘Avaunt, blaggard, step thee kerb-wards, pronto!’ expostulated Fontleroi.
Cod formalism and mangled speech are not how you create texture and tone.
And it’s, like, completely bogus, dude. If you must use it sprinkle it in like seasoning, it’s not the main course.
So these are some of the usages that bug me, and I try to avoid them. I’m sure you have a few of your own.
*If I have in fact been getting this wrong all my life, please let me know.
David Gullen was born in South Africa and baptised by King Neptune at the equator. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including New Scientist’s ARC, Albedo 1, and the Sensorama anthology from Eibonvale. He is a winner of the Aeon Award and been shortlisted for the James White Award. His novel, Shopocalypse, was published by Clarion (2013) and will be re-issued by NewCon Press. He is also one of the judges for the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. David lives in Surrey, England, with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold and too many tree ferns.