Writing Tip: As for the Word “As”…

Power of Words

A writer friend recently posted a question about avoiding the word “as.” An editor told her to avoid it, but she didn’t know why. Another author commented that she’d been told to use “while” or “when” instead of “as.”

While I’ve never been told to avoid “as” by any editor, I do understand the sentiment. When we’re told to avoid words, it’s usually because the use of such words allow for “lazy” constructions.

Periodic Sentences

One reason to avoid “as” could be that it’s used to construct periodic sentences. These are sentences that begin with one (or more) dependent clauses, making the reader wait until the last part of the sentence to see what the sentence is about. Here is an example of a periodic sentence:

As the wind began to blow, as the trees began to sway, and as the land began to tremble, the house toppled down.

We don’t know until the end of the sentence that the house toppled down. Obviously, sentences can be constructed like this for dramatic effect, and periodic sentences are poetic and effective to that end. But for the ordinary sentence meant only to communicate information, periodic sentences can become tiresome for the reader if used too much.

Here is an example:

As he crossed the garden, the sun began to shine.

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with this sentence, but the use of “as” allows the writer to be unspecific. There are two parts to the sentence: crossing the garden and the sun shining. The sentence is Hemingway-esque in its level of detail. It’s a style choice. But for an editor looking for the writer to make each sentence work harder, removing the “as” may force the sentence to be more specific. How about:

He skipped through the garden, relishing in the sun.

Removing “as” forces the reader to consider what else is important about the sentence. In the original sentence, “as” becomes the important factor, tying in the fact that crossing the garden and the sun shining are happening simultaneously. Most often, the concurrent nature of the clauses is not the most important aspect of the sentence. If it’s not, removing “as” may help the writer clarify.

Direct Comparisons

Remember high school English? “As” is an indirect comparison (simile) as opposed to a direct comparison (metaphor). For many writers, similes are easier to write.

Love is like…a red, red rose.

This smelly sneaker is as rotten as a fish.

Metaphors often allow for more complexity than similes.

Love is an unforgiving mistress.

This smelly sneaker is a petri dish.

Once again, the use of the word “as” removes us one step from the sentence. Take a look at this sentence:

The ocean stilled for a moment as though respectful of the ashes that had just been scattered.

Removing the “as” would force the writer to re-arrange the sentence, perhaps adding personification (The ocean stilled for a moment, respecting the ashes scattered on its surface.) One could argue that personifying the ocean is a stronger way to word the sentence. It’s less obvious than the writer or narrator TELLING us why the ocean is still; rather, we’re being SHOWN, seeing that even nature sympathizes with the death (ashes) in this scene.

In short, it’s not the word “as” that’s offensive in and of itself, but it’s the fact that “as” lets writers get away with constructions that could be more strongly worded or stated otherwise.

“As” with any good writing, it’s about using techniques intentionally and for a purpose rather than taking the easy way out. Readers can sense laziness, and they appreciate diligence.

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