Friday, July 27, 2012

The Eyes Have it: Are You "Over Looking" Things in Your Manuscript?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Our characters do a lot of looking in our stories. It's their job to describe what the world looks like, what people look like, what's going on and who's doing what. But are we overlooking the amount of times we use the word look?

I bet if you did a find for how many times look is used in a manuscript the number would be high, especially in an early draft. Same with saw, gaze, and even eyes. Eyes typically get quite the workout.

It makes sense since seeing is our primary sense for gathering information, but when you think about it, everything a character conveys to the reader is something they experienced. If they describe what it looks like, we know they looked at it.

Look (and all its friends) is a great word to double check during revisions, especially if you're trying to trim down your word count. Quite often the text around it introduces a description instead of showing what was seen.
She crept into the room and looked around. Where was that stupid book? She saw a small desk sitting in the corner, with Lulu's Bedazzled journal right out in the open. Gotcha.
Cut the redundant seeing and you get:
She crept into the room. Where was that stupid book? Bedazzled leather teased her from a small desk in the corner, right out in the open. Gotcha.
Is it important to say she looked around the room first and saw things? In most cases, no. It's clear the POV is looking at something. Plus, it saved five words and became much more interesting because the focus shifted to what was seen, not that she saw something.
I saw him reach into the bag and steal a box of Oreos.
If your narrator says it, they saw it.
He reached into the bag and stole a box of Oreos. (and two words saved)
Not every instance of look needs to go, however. If it's a judgment call, it can usually stay.
The street looked clear.
This is the narrator's assumption, not a description of a clear street. A good way to test this is to swap out "looked" with something like "seemed" or "appeared" and see if the sentence still works.
The street appeared clear.
Then you have the gray area looks. The ones that are part judgment call and part observation.
Sally frowned. Bob looked like he might throw up. "Are you gonna puke on me?"
This is Sally's judgment on how Bob looks, but it's also a description of his current physical appearance. There are details associated with throwing up you could use to show the scene better. He might be pale, greenish, sweaty, or covering his mouth with one hand.
Sally frowned. Bob sat hunched over, sweat dripping down his pale face. "Are you gonna puke on me?"
Sometimes you'll want the longer version, while other times the shorter "looked like this" is a better choice. There are no rules for this, it's just trusting your instincts and thinking about what you want the detail to accomplish. If it's a casual observation it might be better to let the quick description rush by. But if the detail carries more story or plot weight, you might want a little more attention paid to it.

(More on description and making details come alive here)

It would also depend on your POV and how observant they are. In my current WIP, I have one POV who notices details and questions everything she sees. The other POV makes snap judgments and doesn't pay a lot of attention to what he sees. She would use the longer version, he would use the shorter one.

If you're looking for a way to A) trim down your word count or B) make your descriptions richer, try editing for look, saw, gaze, stare, and even eye. You might discover quite a few areas to tighten up and polish.

(More on other filter words here)

How do you feel about look? Have you ever thought about how you use it? Do you rely on it to introduce your descriptions? 

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I read an earlier post of yours on filter words a while ago, Janice, and worked with it. I never realised how much of a crutch they were, and how more smoothly my descriptions read without them.

    I'm close to kicking my addiction to hearing, saw, felt and so on, and now filter those filter words as I write.


  2. This is a very interesting and timely post. I considered "look" an invisible word akin to "said". Evidently, one can aspire to better than invisible!

  3. {rolling my eyes} Yes, this is a tough one for me. Your examples are helpful though (as always)

  4. Great point! "Look" is on my watch list (mostly so I can check for the expression type of look, but I did want to check my usage).

    In fact, I just recently posted a Word Macro I use to copy all the sentences that use a certain word (look and about 50 others) into a new document so I can examine them all side by side (instead of clicking Find 2000 times). Love it!

  5. Great tips. I think look is a word like some of the others on your redundant word list to avoid when possible. Like you say, it also helps cut word count.

  6. I use "I" too many times, and too many of my characters "smile" too. The only other synonym I used for "smile" was "grin", but this post gave me some good ideas.

  7. Wow. <> It's like you read my manuscript and saw what I needed. <>

  8. Keep these coming Janice. They're fabulous! I was wondering about this very thing this week, trying to decide how to stop "looking" or "seeing" everything. That's why I especially love your examples to give me an idea on how to stop relying on the eyes so much. Thanks!

  9. Guilty, oh so guilty ... But that's what editing is for right? These examples help so much to truly understand the meaning of the show-don't-tell rule.

  10. Some great examples to help with a common problem. Thanks Janice!

  11. "Look" and all its cousins are on my long list of slash and burn words. Excellent examples!

  12. The "looked/saw" crutch is a hard thing to give up, but writing comes alive without it. I work harder since I read Jill Elizabeth Nelson's short book, Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View. She provides many examples and exercises to help her audience exorcise looked/saw, smelled, tasted, felt, heard, and thought.

    There's a time and a place for all of these words, but the majority of the time, they make prose less immediate and engaging. Great post, Janice!

    Kathrese McKee

  13. Great post and so timely as I'm working through my last revisions before shipping my manuscript off for editing.

  14. I was just looking at all my looked and eyes. I think trimming is in order for sure. I am going to use the find option - I am scared to find out the number.


  15. Good point, Janice. I don't worry about this kind of thing with a first draft (or I'd go crazy), but as I revise, I try to cut back weak phrases and replace them with more active constructs. :)

  16. I started cutting out the word "looked", and the related words in my writing when I was editing my first book, and I'm getting better at training myself to be more direct in the first draft too. It does get easier with practice.

  17. I started cutting out the word "looked", and the related words in my writing when I was editing my first book, and I'm getting better at training myself to be more direct in the first draft too. It does get easier with practice.

    1. It really does. I find I catch myself when I use "lazy words" and can tweak it without losing any momentum.

  18. Great advice. I will definitely go through my WIP and check for these things. Gaze is one I'm always on the watch out after reading it over 50 times in a novel it made me aware of the need not to copy that action. I think I need do that with "glance" "look" etc. Thanks for the great article.

    1. I do a pass for both of those every final polish. I'm also bad about "eyes widened." It's helpful to keep a list of words you know you overuse. Oddly, I find that there's also always an extra (and new) one I use every book that's specific to that book. No clue why!