DIY Editing: Seems? I know not ‘seems’!

I’ve got a weird favorite Shakespeare quote. While other people are off getting lovey dovey with Romeo and Juliet, or sniggering along with Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’ve got a thing for Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet:

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...
I wonder if The Bard had this particular pet peeve… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shortly after the death of his father, Hamlet’s mother remarks that he seems sad. To which he replies:

‘Seems,’ madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’

In other words: “Why the heck are you telling me I ‘seem’ sad?!? Mom, I’m in freaking mourning!”

I often find myself quoting this particular line at people when I see the dreaded ‘seems’ in writing.

What’s wrong with it?

The word ‘seems’ (or any variation thereof) has a particular meaning: it appears to be one way, but it may or may not be that way.

In writing, where the conservation of words and detail are paramount, this translates into: it appears to be one way, but it’s not.

The problem therefore arises when somebody says that something ‘seems to be’ a nice gesture, or the dress ‘seems to be’ big enough. That ‘seems’ means that what you just said is suddenly called into question, and we’re made to expect that the opposite is true– after all, if it really was true, you would go right out and say that.

In Hamlet’s tirade against the word, he points out that anybody can fake being sad, with dramatic sighs and dark clothes and general brooding– such people seem sad, but aren’t. On the other hand, he simply ‘is’.

Why do people use it?

Often ‘seems’ gets misused because

  • Writers are trying to cut instances of ‘am/is/are/was/were’ and don’t realize they’re replacing one linking verb with another.
  • Writers are trying to to point out that a character doesn’t know something– for instance, the way another character is feeling. It’s obvious that Hamlet is sad, but flat out telling us how he feels (when we’re not in his POV) would be head-hopping.

How do I fix it?

  • Be bold. Don’t skirt around your verbs– give us strong, flavorful verbs instead. Instead of ‘Hamlet seems sad’ give us ‘Hamlet wept’.
  • Show, don’t tell. If you’re trying to avoid head-hopping, don’t tell us that a character ‘seems to be thinking hard’. Show us the physical evidence of concentration: perhaps narrowed brows, or a chewed lip. Trust us to make that conclusion on our own.

When does it belong there?

Not every instance of the word is an abuse of the word. Like I pointed out before, ‘seems’ can be a more subtle way of expressing irony or duplicity. It can also be used to point out something that the character legitimately doesn’t know.

Using the dress example: it seems to be the right size, but I don’t have time to try it on. If I take it home without trying it, I’m taking the risk of being dead wrong– and then having to stay home because I have nothing to wear to the zombie ball. In this case, that uncertainty would cause tension. Used too often, though, and the tension drains out and the narrator just seems wishy-washy.


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