In my last update, I mentioned how I decided to take a break from querying to revise my manuscript from third person narrative past to third person narrative present. Happily, I’ve finished that revision, which required changing every verb in my manuscript, and while doing so I noticed something else: I had hidden a lot of weak voicing behind the word “seem.”
For example: “John seems uncomfortable.” As an editor, I had been conscious of trying to avoid too much phrasing like “John is uncomfortable,” but I noticed this time that the former phrase doesn’t really say anything different. “Seem” is just a less certain way of saying “is,” and the narrator should not be uncertain.
To some degree, there may be an implied indirect object, e.g. “John seems uncertain to Barb.” (No, there is no John or Barb in my manuscript.) Now, it’s not as if “seem” has nothing more to offer than “is,” but still, there are stronger, more descriptive ways to say “John seems uncomfortable.”
For example: “John fidgets”; “John avoids eye contact”; “John attempts to lean against the wall but his arm slips, provoking him to attempt a sloppy recovery, brushing his hair back and putting his hands in his pockets.”
I suspect that I fell into this habit (there were over 100 occurrences before I took most of them out!) because I do a lot of academic writing and social commentary. If there is a new Pew study with some interesting findings, saying, “A new study from Pew seems to indicate that …” is a more responsible way of handling the data. It is just one study, after all, and even with the best methodology any conclusion from only one study should be heavily qualified: a lot of uncertainty remains.
Fiction should be the opposite, at least in third person, where the narrator has some degree of omniscience. If I am uncertain about what I’m describing, I’m probably not describing it well.
So be on the watch for weak voice hiding like ninjas behind squishy words like “seem”! When revising, you need to be like Chuck Norris and kill them ten times before they hit the ground.