Editing 101: Smiling and laughing and sighing, oh my!

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Today we’re going to talk about one of the most common mistakes new writers make: using smiling, laughing, and sighing as their characters’ most common affectations.

Think about the last interaction you had with another person. Assuming it was a positive one, how many times do you think you smiled in a five minute period? Probably two or three at least. Maybe you were smiling the whole time. When you think back over those interactions and try to write about them, though, repeating all of the smiling and laughing can make a passage of text boring and repetitive.

Consider this passage.

Terry ran up to Henrietta and threw his arms around her. His smile was so wide it was almost painful. Drawing back, he laughed. “I’ve missed you, baby.” 

Henrietta smiled, blushed, and said, “I’ve missed you too. What took you so long?”

A laugh bubbled up from Terry’s belly. He smiled. “Would you believe I got stopped by a carload of monkeys?”

Henrietta laughed. “Monkeys, really?”

“Yes,” he said with a smile. “Monkeys.”  

That’s four smiles and four laughs in five lines. Now, if that actually happened, the characters probably would be smiling and laughing that much. But that doesn’t mean that you need to write it that way. What about the following?

Terry ran up to Henrietta and threw his arms around her. It was so good to see her and he couldn’t help the joy that welled up inside of him. Drawing back, he looked her up and down. “I’ve missed you, baby.”

Henrietta stared down at her feet, embarrassed. When she looked up again, her lips tugged up and her cheeks wore a rosy glow. “I’ve missed you too. What took you so long?”

The memory bubbled through him, drawing a chuckle from his lips. “Would you believe I got stopped by a carload of monkeys?”

“Monkeys, really?” She shook her head and her shoulders shook with a deep chortle that seemed to start at her toes rise all through her. 

“Yes,” he said, the grin so wide his cheeks hurt. “Monkeys.”

That’s basically the same passage, but there isn’t one single smile or one single laugh. Now, this is an exaggeration, of course, but hopefully you can see how the second passage is a lot more interesting to read than the first.

Sighs are another overused convention. A sigh can mean contentment, frustration, exhaustion, exasperation, boredom, or depression (among other things). When you see someone sigh in real life, you can generally tell what they’re feeling by the tone of the sigh. Is it a dreamy sigh with eyes looking up and a soft smile? Are their shoulders slumped and their eyes drooping? Are they rolling their eyes? All of those things give visual cues to what the sigh means. But when you’re writing, you don’t have those other cues. Which is why a sigh is a physical sign that should be used very rarely.

But how should you work around the sigh? Or for that matter, the smile and the laugh? You need to use other body language descriptors. We love to use a neat little book called The Emotion Thesaurus. One of our favorite resources for writing, this book lists all sorts of common emotions and gives you visual and emotional responses for them. Sweating, touching the face or chest, grumbling, rubbing the back of the neck, tugging on an ear, all of these bits of body language can be used to enhance your writing without resorting to smiling, laughing, or sighing.

Next time on Editing 101: Looking in a mirror.

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