Nodding and Shrugging

As an editor and writing coach, one of my pet peeves is when someone writes that a character “nodded his head” or “shrugged her shoulders.” I find this even in best-selling novels and it makes me cringe every time. An author of that caliber should know better. The editor should be fired.

If you do not understand, or have found yourself guilty of this misuse, please humor me by doing the following:

Shrug something. Anything. In fact, shrug as many things as you can.

What did you shrug?

shrugging diagramYes, of course – your shoulders! By very definition, “A shrug is a form of nonverbal communication that is performed by lifting both shoulders up…”

See? It is redundant to say someone shrugged his shoulders. It makes you sound like an amateur. You may simply say, “He shrugged.”

Now that you know better you can try something else. If you want to get more colorful, try variations of the shrug with some of these phrases:

  • He lifted one shoulder in doubt.
  • He gave a half-shrug and rolled his eyes.
  • He rolled his shoulders and threw his hands out in exasperation.

These are but a few – go ahead and be creative – but for all that is holy, please do not have your character shrug his shoulders. What else would he shrug?

The same is true for nodding. If you repeat the above exercise, you’ll see that there is absolutely nothing else you can nod. Nodding, by definition is “to make a slight, quick downward bending forward of the head.” See? You don’t need to nod your head – if you are nodding, you are already using your head.

Here are some different ways you can show your character is nodding:

  • She dipped her chin in agreement.
  • She gave a half nod, and then smiled.
  • Her curt nod informed me that I was dismissed.
  • She bobbed her head enthusiastically and clapped in glee.

You can save on word count and save those like me from ripping out our hair by paying close attention to the words you use. After all, you ARE a writer, and that is your job, correct? You might as well do it as best you can. Have fun, be creative, enjoy having your characters nod and shrug – just do it responsibly.

Mélanie Hope is a professional speaker, author, and coach who travels the world teaching greater communication skills while making as many people laugh as possible.

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