On writing

The smirk-factor as sign of how amateur your book is

Amateurs smirk, professionals don’t.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but when characters smirk in a story it always makes the story seem just that little bit more amateur. One character, one smirk, is bad enough. But when all the characters start to smirk, one after the other, oh boy.

I’ve been reading a lot of two and three dollar eBooks lately. Some are great stories, others so-so, and some are downright bad.

It’s purely subjective, but for me one of the indicators of how good a story will be is the number of times characters smirk. One smirk is acceptable, but two or more close together early in the book, especially when it’s different characters doing the smirking, usually denotes a book that needed a lot more editing before it went to press. Or, to put it bluntly, self-published books.

When I read about characters smirking in a novel it’s often in a romantic part, where one character smirks to the other just as they’re about to get down and do it. What the writer usually means is that the character is feeling pretty pleased with themselves about something, that they are smiling in a self-satisfied manner.

Except to me, this is not what smirk means.

The Free Dictionary defines a smirk as:

To smile in an affected, often offensively self-satisfied manner as:

to smile in an affected, smug, or offensively familiar way

Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary:

a smile that expresses satisfaction or pleasure about having done something or knowing something which is not known by someone else


a smile expressing scorn, smugness, etc., rather than pleasure

The origin of the word, according to most of the sites cited above, is from the Old English smearcian, related to smer derision; and the Old High German bismer contempt, bismeron to scorn.

It’s not the sort of smile you’re about to give to the man or woman you are having a romantic moment with. Not unless you’re raping or blackmailing them.

Even worse is when the characters always smirk. I mean, how often do you smirk? How many of your friends smirk all the time? I recently read a novel where there were six smirks on the one page, shared amongst two people.

It was Mark Twain who said that the difference between the right word and almost the right word was the difference between lightning and the lightning-bug. Smirking is like that. Oftentimes when it’s used, it’s not quite the right word. It always takes me out of a story. And I’m sorry to all you smirkers out there, but most times it makes the writing feel a lot more amateur.

9 replies on “The smirk-factor as sign of how amateur your book is”

Okay, so Kevin Hearne put eight smirks in Hexed, book 2 of the Iron Druid Chronicles and I didn’t have a problem with any of them.

Maybe he’s the exception that proves the rule.

Thank you!

I critique many books on Wattpad (writing(ish) site) and someone posted for feedback on their first chapter.

I counted smirk seven times in a small chapter. Seven. I told her this alone would cause me to stop reading before I ever hit the second chapter.

Her rebuttal was this was my pet peeve and not her problem. First, don’t ask for feedback if you aren’t ready to hear it. Second, facial expressions show the readers the emotion being portrayed. There are so many expressions out there and she latched on to this one.

If this was ‘shrugged’ or ‘eyes widened’ I still would have left. It shows a lack of creativity.

I can handle the word, but when I see it right away in a first chapter I immediately feel like this book will offer little in regards to skill.


I think there are stages to improving as a writer. One of the earliest and most important is learning to take criticism.

If writing was a video game, you’d go up a level up when you learn to accept criticism.

You go up another level (later in the game), when you start to revise out the repeated (pet) words as well. Sherylyn–who does what we call the ‘weasel word’ editing in our novels–searches the document to find how many times a word like this would turn up, and red-pens them all. If I want them back in, I have to justify them to her.

We try to do it with most words (don’t always manage it), but especially for less-common words like smirk. Authors don’t realise they’re pet words until someone else points them out.

And I still don’t think most people realise exactly what they’re conveying about a character who smirks.

Just read a book by a writer I’ve enjoyed often before; no amateur, but (one would think) a seasoned professional. But this kept bugging me throughout the book: nearly every character smirks. I started dreading the word, knowing it was going to pop up again.
Frustrating because it’s so easily fixed.

I have to say, that since I wrote this post smirk does seem to be coming more and more into common use. It’s definitely a word that draws more attention to itself than its five letters warrant. It still jars every time I read it.

I know this is an old post but I just have to comment. I think the last 3 books I have read has used – and overused – the word ‘smirk’ or ‘smirked’. It spoils everything. It could be a good story but this one word can damage it significantly, possible even beyond compare. I’d compare it to ‘bwa ha ha ha’. I feel like panto season has just begun. I’m not an author, just a reviewer. I don’t think any of the authors I hold in the highest regard use it. It’s too simplistic. The only other thing that winds me up as much is the overuse of similes. I’m such a grump.

I was just reading and commenting on the quora answers to this question when I decided to look for intelligent life elsewhere….
Thank you so much for expressing ideas in a wonderfully clear, concise and witty manner.
The word has become such a crutch among so many writers, even being used by non Amazon due to what I assume is an easy way to appeal to a younger audience.
My only other pet peeve is the increased prevalence of explicitly telling me who is speaking by stating the characters name as a POV identifier.
Whenever I find I need a break I read a book in Spanish, as even the ones on Amazon are usually a balm for the literary soul.

I’ve noticed the prevalence of “smirk” in Young Adult books. And also of “scoff.”Another pet peeve. I’ve stopped reading because of them. Can self-publishers not get access to editors? Sometimes I want to reach out and offer to do it for them — that’s how much it gets my goat. 😊

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