The Use of AS and WHEN

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Suzanne D. Williams


There are a couple phrases I try stridently to avoid, especially when writing fiction. I want to cover two because these are the ones I see most often. They are also the hardest to dodge, but I have found that my use of them is the “cheap way out.” I know I can do so much better otherwise and in the end, improve my writing.




As serves two purposes in a sentence. It is a comparison:Sally was as creative as a pack of swine at a hog trough. This usage is acceptable, though should never be overused. However, “as” also serves to designate the movement of more than one action.


Sally lifted her spoon as she scanned the dinner guests.


Now, there is nothing wrong with saying that, but let’s break it down. First, Sally is obviously eating something with a spoon. This sentence doesn’t tell us what though. What if we included that?


Sally lifted a spoonful of briny soup, eyeing the strange tentacles floating in the green broth.


That’s so much more informative than the previous sentence, but it lacks the rest of the action. Sally is looking at the dinner guests. So she’s not alone and apparently, it’s not family or at least, not people she sees daily. Therefore, why would she be watching them? Try adding this to the mix.


Sally lifted a spoonful of briny soup, eyeing the strange tentacles floating in the green broth. The spoon poised in her hand, she scanned the dinner guests for any sign they’d notice if she didn’t eat it.


So much more revealing! Sally doesn’t want to eat the strange soup, and personally, I don’t blame her.


Removing “as” from the sentence enabled me to create a more fulfilling scene. But removing “as” is also sometimes necessary because the person in question isn’t really doing those two things at the same time. Sally cannot be eyeing the soup and the guests, unless she is a chameleon and her eyes operate independently (which would make the story that much more interesting), so taking it out of the equation makes much more sense.




This brings me to my next troublesome word – “when.” “When” also denotes the time of the action, but often the two actions in question do not happen at the same time. Back to Sally’s strange dinner party.


Sally lowered her spoon when Uncle Van coughed.


Now, it’s possible Sally did this at the same time as Uncle Van’s cough, or it could be Sally lowered her spoon BECAUSE he coughed. It could be her lowering the spoon had nothing to do with him coughing. We don’t know because this sentence doesn’t say. So what if we conveyed that?


Uncle Van’s cough provided the perfect distraction. Lowering her spoon, Sally gave a wide smile. What no one knew wouldn’t hurt them.


This is so much cleaner and more explanatory than the previous sentence. God bless Uncle Van for coughing.




There are always times when “as” or “when” are really the only words available. However, once you form the habit of avoiding them, they start to bug you in the writing of others. I find myself mentally changing the scene, wondering how the action would have been different if the author expounded a bit. I’ve also found myself using clauses and phrases in my sentence structure that were infinitely better.


Writing is a learning process. That is what I love about it the most, that with each story I can become so much more than I was before and look back at where I began and see my own growth.


Suzanne-640_thumb.jpgSuzanne D. Williams is a native Floridian, wife, mother, photographer, and writer. She is the author of both nonfiction and fiction books. She writes a monthly column for on the subject of digital photography, as well as devotionals and instructional articles for various blogs. She also does graphic design for self-publishing authors.


To learn more about what she’s doing visit or link with her on Facebook at





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“Look down,” he said.

Down? She inclined her head and the sight of the words scrawled in the moist sand filled her heart. Ti amo, he’d written, and drawn a heart with their initials, S.C. & V.C.


Sergio and Vittoria Colafranceschi have a good life: three beautiful children, a nice house, and bountiful family on both sides. They are the American dream, children of Italian immigrants who came seeking a better life.

Yet all they have today has developed through both good times and bad, from first love to heartbreak, through sickness and new beginnings to a strong, sustaining love as an example for their children.

This is their story.


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  1. First I can’t use adverbs, then I have to switch everything to active voice, and now I can’t use ‘as’ and ‘when’??? Just kidding, of course. Writing is certainly a learning experience. I suppose when you stop growing its time to stop writing… Thanks for these great tips.

  2. Love Suzanne’s article on the use of “as” and “when” and since I’ve read it, it’ll make me stop and think when I use those words. Good article. BJ


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