Reading time: 4 minutes

When I’m editing fiction or nonfiction, one of the most common speed bumps I trip on is The Simultaneous Action Problem (SAP). Sounds serious, right?

It’s not. It’s also known as the AS/While Issue, and it’s just a speedbump. It happens when the author uses as or while to show simultaneous action.

The problem occurs because we live—doing and being and thinking—many things all at the same time, but we read linearly.

One phrase comes before the next phrase. If the author shows one phrase before the next and then tells us that the events happened at the same time, we have to dip back into the beginning of the sentence and rethink it. It only takes a microsecond, and most readers never notice it, but the cumulative impact on the reader is real.

Here is an example

It’s exaggerated to make the issue evident. As you read the following sentence, pay attention to the pictures forming in your mind.

Jordan grabbed three cookies off the platter on the counter as she ran through the smoke-filled bowling alley while an impressively large firefighter yelled at her to get out.

Here’s what I saw:

  • Jordan is standing someplace with cookies on a platter on a counter, and she takes three—probably a kitchen
  • Jordan is running as she grabs the cookies.
  • She’s running through a smoke-filled bowling alley. Wait. With cookies?
  • There’s a big firefighter. [I like firefighters. No. I must pay attention.] The firefighter is yelling at her to get out. She’s probably got a mouthful of chocolate-chip cookie. Wait. Who cares about cookies when the building’s on fire?

Admittedly, the As/While Issue isn’t the only problem with that sentence. But clunky as the example is, it shows how we have to double back when the author asks us to imagine simultaneous action.

And the fix is easy. Write the action linearly in the order the events happened. Often, the sentence can be fixed by replacing as with and.

So why bother about it?

We bravely battle the dreaded Simultaneous Action Problem (the SAP) because all those tiny bumps that slow the reader for just a second add up. Those yapping puppies take a toll on the reader’s enjoyment. And even if a given reader doesn’t complain about the speedbump, the author knows the writing is stronger, the pace more controlled without the speed bump.

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Your mission, should you choose to accept it is:

Go through your work-in-progress and do a search for [whole words only] as and while. Of the instances of as, focus only on the instances that signal simultaneous action. Used in comparison or metaphor or any purpose other than simultaneous action, as is a perfectly respectable word and should be treated with all due honor.

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