Guest Post: Don’t Turn to Look by Rayne Hall

Regular readers of this blog and the Guild of Dreams know that I sometimes go off a little bit about self-published authors and editing. The quickest way to prove to someone that self-published books are an inferior product (which they are not) is with poor editing. One of the things I’ve always done is searching for what I call ‘Bruce’s Bad Words’ (I believe grammarians and editors may have a different name for them). This list includes words I use habitually or words that are wishy-washy, vague, or just plain superfluous. ‘Turn’ has always been on my list, and I recently added ‘look,’ now the wonderful Rayne Hall tells us all why, so let’s all turn and look at what she has to say.

—–

DON’T TURN TO LOOK

by Rayne Hall

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.

CUT “LOOK”

“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.

Examples:

Obese

Looking at him, she nodded.

Slim

She nodded

Or:

She nodded at him.

Obese

He looked at her and poured her a drink.

Slim

He poured her a drink.

Obese

As he gazed at her, he scratched an ear.

Slim

He scratched an ear.

Obese

“Xxx?” she asked, looking at him.

Slim

or

“Xxx?” she asked him.

or

“Xxx?” she asked.

or

“Xxx?”

Obese

She looked at the mountain which towered over the valley.

Slim

The mountain towered over the valley.

CUT “TURN”

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?35419801_331dad5825_o

Cut it.

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.

Obese

She turned to him and clasped his hand.

Slim

She clasped his hand.

Obese

She changed her mind, turned and hurried home.

Slim

She changed her mind and hurried home.

Obese

He turned and walked away.

Slim

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.

Obese

He turned to look at her and nodded.

Slim

He nodded.

Obese

She turned, looked at him, and clasped his hand.

Slim

She clasped his hand.

EXCEPTIONS

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.

—–

For more on Rayne Hall, check out this interview on Guild of Dreams from a couple of months back.

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9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Don’t Turn to Look by Rayne Hall

  1. I’m collecting words just like those (and yes, both ‘look’ and ‘turn’ are on my list) for a feature on my editing page. Only got about twenty so far. Another useless word that tells me nothing is ‘nice’. I mean, how can you even picture ‘nice’? Unless it’s a sarcastic retort, I weed it out.

    1. Mine is 20+ long, as well. It includes: that, there, was were, try (and tried), moment, just, nearly, barely, almost, could, would, even, still, only, something, somehow, as, and manage. Some are my habits, some unnecessary, some vague. The first challenge, of course, is knowing you need to look for them in the first place.

    2. Hi Ella and Bruce,
      Here are more words to add to your list: ‘begin to’, ‘start to’, ‘feel’, really, all of.
      He started to run. > He ran.
      She began to shiver. > She shivered.
      She felt her throat tighten. > Her throat tightened.
      All of the guests left. > The guests left.
      🙂

    1. Happy to have you. The look synonyms were easy to find, but I had to call on my (rather lacking) GIMP skills to get the no turns sign in there.
      ‘Turn’ is one of the words I’ve searched out since I began writing, but it was more due to overuse rather than being unnecessary. Your post made me realize I can get rid of more of them than I was thinking I could. Thanks for that!

  2. Hi! I find your articles very helpful! Could yoh give me some tips about breaking up dialogue please? I find it hard when my characters are having (plot-relieving) conversations that it is mainly 2-3 pages of straight dialogue with nothing else. How would you reccomend that i break it up?

    I try to make disturbances in the background that distract the characters for moments- sometimes they are foreboading and neccessary, but most of the time it feels akward. Any advice you could give would be really helpful! Thanks!

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