The phrase ‘looked at’ is often overused. By this I don’t mean using ‘looked’ as a body language reference, for example, where one character might say something and then another character looks at them without speaking. This, in its own way, is a form of implied description in which the reaction is implied by the circumstances. Perhaps the first character says something disgusting and another character looks at them the implication being it’s a judgemental look that says, ‘I can’t believe you said that’. What I mean is the use of ‘I/he/she/they look at an object’.

At this point you might say, ‘But Jesse my character is looking at an object.’ I’m not going to argue that they aren’t simply that by describing the object we imply the act of looking at it, a character must be looking at an object to describe it. This doesn’t have to be a complex description either it could be instead of writing:

  • They looked at the clock on the mantelpiece, it said twelve o’clock.

We write:

  • The clock on the mantelpiece said twelve o’clock.

So instead of using twelve words you use eight. This might not sound like much but if you’re writing a novel so it will likely be over 70,000 words it will mount up to a considerable amount of verbiage saved.

Obviously we’re not infallible so using ‘they looked at’ is going to slip in there sometimes and other times it might add so clarity, for instance in a lengthy description. However, it isn’t required every time a character changes focus. It’s also worth noting that when we write repetition creates emphasis so the more often we write ‘they looked’, particularly in a small space, it will become more noticeable and if it’s used too often it may even begin to irritate the reader.

That said, when writing a first draft it doesn’t matter if you use it regularly, it can be cut out and reworded during editing because in a first draft it’s all about getting the story down. Nor will it be expected that you eradicate absolutely every instance of it, while this would be impressive we’re all only human and it will slip passed us sometimes. Other times there will be moments were trying to avoid the phrase ‘they looked’ might actually add more words where the directness of ‘they looked’ might work better.

What I’m trying to say is that when we’re writing our descriptions it’s good to be aware of ‘they looked’ so we don’t fall into the habit of overuse. But using it sometimes doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. We just have to be careful not to say ‘they looked’ every time a character looks at something.


For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on the basics of writing see Finding Your Toolbox.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

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