Just the Right Word

I'll follow up on the post the other day by drilling down deeper into word choices. That's because our minds can be stuck in certain ruts, and we end up using the same words over and over again. I frequently consult a thesaurus because a manuscript I’m editing keeps employing certain common words over and over again. While freshness of story concept is an overarching attraction for a reader, freshness of vocabulary can be a subtler but ongoing source of satisfaction.

I have to admit, I love reviewing an entire horde of possible substitutes for a word. Each has its own shade of meaning. Among the greatest assets of the American Heritage Dictionary are its boxes that parse out, in a sentence apiece, how a list of similar words should be employed. For instance, “bombast” and “claptrap” seem to be roughly equivalent, but the dictionary points out the difference. “Bombast stresses inflation of style but does not always imply insubstantiality of thought,” whereas “Claptrap is insincere, empty speech or writing.” I think most good writers want to make sure that they are using the right shade of meaning.

You need to be careful. though. Often I encounter a word that is approximately correct, but stands out like a sore thumb because it is elevated so far beyond the writer’s usual level of diction. A look at one of Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Day on my homepage shows the wide divergence of common versus fancy. The word was “nimiety,” one that, despite my fair knowledge of vocabulary, had me stumped. It turned out to mean “excess, redundancy.” Synonyms supplied included “overkill,” “plethora,” “superfluity,” “surfeit,” “surplus,” and “preponderance.” If you are writing a thriller in which you have tough guys and molls, the words that will fit your level of diction are going to be “overkill” and “surplus.” A reader of the genre immediately grasps the meaning and moves on. If you are careful, you will find another word at the same level of diction—that  will work perfectly.

The other words would be good choices in a more literary work, although I’m still not sure about “nimiety,” unless you like to use three-dollar words that send readers scrambling for the dictionary. (I will note that, oddly enough, in the days when I used to write down every word I didn’t know, I found Henry Miller had the widest range of vocabulary words. Read Black Spring at your peril.)

Being a wordsmith means knowing your tools. If you are as boundlessly creative as the authors you admire, the bon mot will pop into your fertile brain. Yet if you find yourself annoyed that you’ve picked the same word once again, a thesaurus provides a means by which to free yourself from the rut you’re in. Just think: an entire paragraph of similar words, and maybe even several paragraphs. That can only be described as a pleasure to behold.

Exercise: One reason you are frustrated enough to consult a thesaurus may be that you’re trying too hard. You’re trying to jam that overused word into a sentence. Instead, review the possible synonyms with an open mind. You may discover that an alternate word that you like won’t fit into your existing sentence—but it would if you reconstructed the sentence around the synonym.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Plucking and Choosing

Writing software tools such as Find can be a godsend for a careful author. As an editor I have a mental clicker that keeps track of overused words and expressions. Yet an author has a harder time seeing these, because the repetitions represent the way you spark the power to generate other words used in those sentences.  In other words, certain ways of phrasing a sentence puts you in your wheelhouse for expressing a new idea. So, an author should use “quite” and “rather” qualifiers if they help prompt a sentence that is provocative and interesting. After you’re done, you just take out the “quite” or “rather”—and everything else still sparkles.

I run the Find function when my intuition tells me that a word is being overused, and I sometimes have been shocked by the results. I knew characters were doing a certain amount of staring at each other, but 148 times? A person could get eye strain from that. That’s where another computer aid comes in.

I use a dashboard thesaurus often, flicking the screen over to study possible alternatives. After all, I’m in the business of keeping the vocabulary in a manuscript fresh. On occasion I find that none of the synonyms really will work, but nine times out of ten I spy another word at the same level of diction that I know very well—and will work perfectly.

You can also run a global search on trickier items of redundancy. One phrase I look for often is “as if” or “as though.” This sort of sentence construction has valuable uses, but when I see it repeatedly, I usually feel that the prose in general is getting snarled in complex sentences. Again, writing depends on how an author thinks. If you naturally compose complex sentences, using “as though” is a natural extension of unspooling a thought. Many readers, especially nowadays, don’t think that way, however. What I tend to do is delete "as though" and separate the sentence into two.

What I really wish for—if Santa visits the world of computer editing—is a search function that would identify how many participial phrases are used in a manuscript. Many such phrases are stronger when they become an independent sentence. But if you try to look up “ing “ you will be frustrated. The suffix is used too often for other purposes. If robots can clean my house, how come they can’t look for a comma followed by a participle?

Exercise: If while reviewing your manuscript, you feel a tic that you’ve seen that usage before, stop. You have, almost for sure. Type the word or phrase into your Find window and see how many times it is used throughout the manuscript. You’ll likely gulp at the number. Then spend a few minutes looking up synonyms, not only for that word but for similar words. Start jumping through the search and adding fresh vocabulary.

“I have written—often several times—every word I have ever published.”
—Vladimir Nabokov

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Selective Engineering

When you edit a manuscript based on another person's advice, you may be surprised by how much impact a limited amount of rework has on the problem being addressed. Any author will be cheered by this news, because it accords with a natural law of writing. Advice given is sweeping; the writer’s response is grudging. It works that way because the author is the one who has to plow through the practical steps of making the changes.

As an editor, I know more than I want to about the depressing variety of author  responses to criticism. Some authors change a sentence here and there and ta-da! That kind of editing is too limited. Others rewrite and add hundreds of pages—toward a grand design that bears little resemblance to the advice.

You want to be strategic. How large is the issue being addressed? That tells you how many changes you should make. If, for example, someone remarks that he didn’t get to know the protagonist’s boyfriend well enough to care when he breaks off the book-long relationship, that’s pretty large. You would want to shoot for a minimum of five places in the manuscript where the relationship is augmented. Two of those might consist of new scenes entirely. In the end, how much are you really adding? Maybe 15-20 pages? Yet when the coverage is expanded in five separate locations, we get to understand the arc of the relationship much better. Now the break-up has an emotional payoff.

The advice may address a slighter issue, and your response should be commensurate. If a hero regularly meets with buds at a bar, the reader might complain that all the friends are an undifferentiated mass. So you pick out two—one loud and one sensitive maybe—and add coverage for them in those scenes. You cut down (or give the lines of lesser players to one of the two you picked) on the others, and you’re done. How many bar scenes are there, anyway?

You may decide that the change suggested will require too much work to be worth the effort. Let’s say a street kid ends up being adopted. You’re advised to make the child older, because a girl at age six functions essentially as a go-go doll. Pick me! Yet as you review the scenes in which she appears, you realize you’d have to rewrite all of them to make her 12, not to mention devising different plot outcomes because of her added sophistication. You have to ask yourself: how central is she to the drama? Is the story really about the adopting couple?

Exercise: With any change, first review the scenes in which the targeted characters appear. Only those scenes, lifted out from all the rest. Study the dynamics within that limited purview. Now start writing the new material or pruning the old. You can always figure out how the new work ties in with the rest of the book later.

“When you stand alone and sell yourself, you can't please everyone. But when you're different, you can last. “
—Don Rickles

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.