I have just finished editing two very good third draft novels with great characters, original plots and flashes of stylistic brilliances. However, both suffered from the strange phenomenon of over-active body parts. By this I mean a tendency for the writers to say things like ‘She watched him with her eyes’, ‘His ears listened intently’, ‘His feet took him along the path.’ When your character sees something, we take it as read that they are doing so with their eyes; when a character speaks we assume they are doing so through their mouth (unless, of course, they are Donald Trump …).
You only really need to get anatomical when your character’s action is unusual or very specific:

  • ‘Her eyes smiled’ is necessary; ‘her lips smiled’ is not – ‘she smiled’ is perfectly adequate.
  • ‘He picked it up with his feet’ is unusual; ‘he picked it up with his fingers’ is something your reader will assume unless someone wouldn’t normally do so because the object is red-hot or scatological
  • ‘She held the box with her hands’ requires a change of preposition – ‘in’. ‘With’ works if it’s ‘both hands’ or ‘trembling hands’, otherwise we take it for granted that she’s using them; ‘between her teeth’ might be informative; ‘between her toes’ may suggest prehensility.
  • ‘He kicked him with his foot’ – a tautology; define the verb ‘to kick’.
  • ‘My eyes saw him across the room’ – ‘she saw him’ is fine. The poetic approach only works in The Battle Hymn of the Republic – ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’
  • ‘His nose smelled something rotten’ – your character has a malodourous proboscis.
  • ‘He leaned his body against the wall’ – the ‘body’ is unnecessary unless, of course, it is someone else’s i.e. a corpse.

Now let me get back to reading manuscripts with my eyes as I sit on my … actually that phrase works!
Ardella Jones 
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