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

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.