The Quest for Variety

When an author is writing a first draft, the repetition of favored words represents a desire to employ the force the word contains. At this stage language is not as important as getting the idea down on paper. Because writing proceeds linearly over an expanse of time, an author can forget that they felt the impulse to use a same word before, often multiple times.

When it comes time to review the first draft, however, a different imperative has to take hold. Keeping the reader entertained consists of efforts large and small. Not only slashing plot events but also individual word choices. Inserting a fresh vocabulary word 500 times can make a pronounced, if subtle, impact on the reading experience. No matter what level of diction you are writing on, you can find synonyms that fit within the prose.

Searching for a bon mot leads to another editing practice that will alter your customary means of expression. For instance, if you decide that “They moved to the door” should be replaced by “They marched to the door,” the connotation of “march” can lead to further changes in the sentence and possibly beyond. What is causing them to march as opposed to, say, amble or stroll? You might see that an earlier piece of dialogue might well inspire anger in the listener: hence march. So you fiddle with that earlier piece until it becomes toned up as well. A little more juice out of that bite of the story.

A good way to shake up norms is changing sentence structure. Writers also tend to write the same type of sentence, such as a main clause followed by a participial phrase. “They swept across the clearing, checking their back trail all the way across” is an example. You can add tension merely by chopping the sentence in half, since shorter sentences put the emphasis on active verbs. “They swept across the clearing. All the way across, they checked their back trail.”

My favorite way, as an editor, of varying habits is adopting a more forceful point of view. So many times authors write a passage as though they are looking down on a scene, trying to imagine how it unfolds. If you know theater, this approach is akin to “blocking”—that is, providing stage directions on where characters should go and when. When you blend exterior with interior, though, you get much better results. “They moved to the door” might become “They had to go to the door in order to find out what in the world was going on outside.”

Exercise: Check the draft for habitual words. While you can use more common words more often, see if “said” can be converted to “replied,” “retorted,” and the like. You don’t want to go crazy; you’re just trying to see if more flavor will fit there. If making a word substitution doesn’t feel right, look at the sentence. Maybe that’s what's keeping the prose in lockstep.

“There is no time for cut-and-dried monotony.”
—Coco Chanel

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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