Plucking and Choosing

As a person who worked for years with a sharp pencil, I tend to trust my instincts more than word-processing aids, but that is only a personal preference. Tools such as Find can be a godsend for a careful author. I have a mental clicker that keeps track of common mistakes such as 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 on occasion, when my intuition tells me that too much repetition is at play, 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 my 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 use Find, flick to the dashboard (or however you like to set up your thesaurus), and presto: nice word substitution. 

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 the phrase, and separate the sentence in two. Most of the time, removing the connecting clause does not require any further editing. But you have removed a tangle.

What I really wish for—if Santa would like to join the world of computer editing—is a search function that would identify how many participial phrases are used in a manuscript. Again, I am not an enemy of them, but I do know that 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 @ 2023, John Paine

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