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Avoid Misusing Seem


Posted by Jake Magnum


Misusing the word seem (or similar verbs such as look or appear) is a common error that I see authors commit in fictional writing.

Some authors overuse seem, often placing it in sentences that would be stronger without it. If you feel that you might fit into this category, read on. This article will explain a few basic rules you can follow to ensure sure you’re not misusing this verb.

Don’t use seem to describe something that is clearly true.

We’ll start with a straightforward rule. When describing a scenario that is known to be factual, using seem adds nothing to the sentence. If anything, it only misleads the reader, as the word seem implies doubt. Take a look at the following passage:

She couldn’t read what the message said. It seemed to be written in a foreign language.

If the character cannot read the message, then it is undoubtedly written in a language that is foreign to her. Therefore, seem is redundant. Simply writing, “It was written in a foreign language,” makes the sentence clearer and more concise.

Seem may be used to describe something that is certainly untrue.

It is acceptable to use seem to describe something that appears to be true when it is actually false, such as in the following example:

The lecture seemed to go on forever.

Obviously, the lecture didn’t really last forever; it just felt like it did. Seemed does a good job of expressing this.

However, even when describing something untrue, using seem carelessly can ruin figurative language, as illustrated by the two examples below:

His eyes seemed to light up when I mentioned Talia’s name.

His eyes lit up when I mentioned Talia’s name.

Omitting seemed results in a more powerful sentence.

Seem may be used to describe something that is uncertain.

Authors often use seem to express that it is unknown whether something is true, such as in the following example:

The sword seemed to be well-crafted.

An author would write the sentence above to explain that the character who has found this sword can’t tell whether it is well-crafted, but it likely is based on its appearance, how it feels in his hand, etc.

The sentence above is perfectly fine in isolation. However, many authors would subsequently reveal the true stability of the sword somewhat randomly, as though there had never been any doubt. For example, in the first fight scene after the character finds the sword, we might be told that he “raised his sword and slashed through the beast’s neck.”

Oh. I guess the sword was well-crafted after all. Great.

In such a case, the author was aimless in describing the sword as something that “seemed to be well-crafted.” The doubt created by using seem should have foreshadowed something: perhaps failure (“He swung his sword at the beast, but when the blade hit its scales, it broke off the hilt.”) or suspense (“The last thing he wanted right now was to enter a battle, especially as he still had no idea whether his sword would hold up.”).

Hopefully, you can put this information to good use and remove some unnecessary seemed tos looked to bes and appeared as thoughs from your writing.

Thanks for reading!