62. How to Fix ‘As/When/While’ Problems in Your Writing

Author: Nola Published: about 1 month ago.
Tags: copyediting problems, sequencing problems, impossibilties Category: Writing tips

Kalinda turned her head as she heard the knock on the ancient oak door. Could it be Sebastian, back from his mission to kill the mythical dragon of Azandor? She cleared the dirty plates from the table while skipping across the flagstone floor. Quelling the butterfly riot in her stomach, she flung open the door as adrenalin coursed through her petite frame. Alas, her heart crashed in disappointment when she realised it was only Pedro the farm boy.

Poor Pedro. Will he ever win the hand of Kalinda? Perhaps, but there are more pressing problems associated with the author’s use of ‘as’, ‘when’ and ‘while’. Here are three of them:

  1. Sequencing issue – Since the paragraph starts with Kalinda turning her head, we think that event happened first. However, we soon learn that she turned her head in response to hearing the knock. It’s usually better to swap the order of events so that it matches rules of cause and effect. For example: ‘A knock resounded through the ancient oak door. Kalinda turned. Could it be Sebastian?’ (There can also be problems with too much ‘turning’ and ‘looking’ in your writing, but I’ll cover that in another post.)

  2. Practical impossibility – Words like ‘as’, ‘when’ or ‘while’ can sometimes link two things that can’t realistically happen together. You can’t clear dirty plates while skipping across the floor. You’d have to stop skipping and do a detour around the table. Even if you picked up the dishes mid-skip and flung them into the sink, you’d have to be pretty coordinated. Instead of piquing readers’ interest, they have to stop and try to visualise what’s happening.

  3. Diversion of attention – Even when two things can occur at once (e.g. adrenalin running through your body while you’re flinging open a door), the reader has to juggle those different events. Most of us can visualise a couple of things occurring together, but if you overload your sentences, it becomes more difficult to give each item the attention it deserves. I don’t think this problem is as critical as the other two, but it’s worth checking your manuscript to ensure that you’re not asking too much of the reader’s powers of imagination.

Go through your current work in progress and search for ‘as’, ‘when’, ‘while’ and similar words. For ‘as’, it may be helpful to scan smaller sections of your manuscript at a time because a search will find any word that includes that combination of letters (e.g. ‘Sebastian’ in my example above.) Look at each instance and ask yourself if it passes the three tests above. Similes like ‘as white as snow’ would be fine, but having your heroine smiling as she drinks her goji berry juice would not. If a sentence doesn't pass the test, try rewording to make it clearer.

Have you come across any funny or awkward examples of ‘as/when/while’ problems in your own or others’ manuscripts? I’d love to hear from you.

Comments read 4 comments

Comments for this post have closed.