A Glancing Blow

Do you ever notice, when you’re editing, that you have a “favorite word?” Mine, apparently, is “glance.” In the rough draft of the novel I’m editing, “glance” occurs on average once every 1.98 pages. In the second draft, it occurs once every 6 pages. Obviously, this means I’ll be cutting out some glances in the third draft too.

If this happens to you, too, know that you’re not alone, and that we’re both in good company. Every writer has a word or phrase that really resonates with them. And when we’re writing something long, or we take breaks while writing, that word or phrase is more likely to pop back up right after the break. One of my favorite writing processes involves a partner. My partner and I each take a character or two, so that the character’s voice and reactions will be less uniform with other characters, and we work through a series of events together, trading paragraphs as each character reacts or something happens that needs to be described.

I cannot tell you how often we both use the same word.

In close proximity.

No, I mean in the very next sentence or paragraph. It’s easier to do when you’re trying to write in a shared style and you didn’t just write the thing you’re rewriting. Hence a lot of the glances: Character A might glance at an object and then Character B glances at Character A. Still, over time that’s a lot of glancing. Not to mention the light glancing off things, a glancing blow… you get the picture.

What’s wrong with overuse?

Word overuse makes your story boring. Not because the word isn’t the right word, or because it doesn’t accurately describe the situation, but because the reader has already seen the word or phrase and so the image you’re trying to convey takes on a sense of sameness.

That’s why “a single tear rolled down my cheek” garners more of an eyeroll than a sympathetic nod: you’ve just written pretty much every amateurish story in which someone is sad, and your story or personal essay is now carrying the additional weight of the reader’s boredom with all those stories. It’s a lot to overcome.

So how do I save my story?

With a thesaurus, young Padawan. Grab that hefty book or sweet online search bar and plug in that word you use all the time. See what options you have. Sometimes the thesaurus will give you an idea for how to rephrase the whole sentence. Sometimes no other word works and you have to use the original. And sometimes (gasp!) you can just cut the sentence because it doesn’t add much to your story.

(As an aside, the two easiest ways to find what words you overuse are an automated indexing function that counts instances of the word being used, or just reading your work backwards. The backwards trick also catches a lot of misspellings and missing words because your brain can’t go into “I know what I wrote” skim mode.)

So instead of glancing back and forth, characters might turn, stare, look, or I just might not need to include blocking descriptions for that particular part of the scene. Similarly, if your word is “picked” and you’re describing a trip to the store where you picked up your mother who picked out her clothing and then you picked a grocery cart and had trouble picking oranges, instead you might “rescue” your mother from the house, choose clothing, go on a quest for a cart without a sticky wheel, and then choose – no, I just said choose – pick out some oranges to take home. Now your reader doesn’t feel like you did the same thing four times!

It’s a TRAP!

Okay, but about that thesaurus thing. I don’t know how many times I can say it, but there is no transitive property of synonyms.

Words don’t ACTUALLY mean the same thing as other words. Except for flammable and inflammable, don’t get me started on that one. But other than that. That’s why I encourage writers to explore the limits of their vocabulary: there’s usually a lovely precise word out there which means the same thing as the clumsy, wordy explanation they’re trying to jam into a confined space.

But there are two things you have to be wary of when you’re diving into the thesaurus:

“You keep using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means.”

In order for you to successfully use a word in your story, essay or poem, two people need to know what it means without having to look it up: you and your reader. While using erudite phrasing is wonderful, it can also lose your reader if they can’t puzzle it out. That means saving the fancy words for places where context makes meaning clear. On the other hand, if a reader knows what a word means, and that’s not the meaning you’d intended to convey, you end up looking foolish.

That means start, but don’t stop, with the thesaurus. You need a dictionary too. Words have individual meanings and nuance. They’re like spices. Sure, saffron and turmeric are both yellow, cloves and pepper are both black, or achiote and paprika are both an earthy orange, but you wouldn’t substitute one for the other and assume that the recipe would come out tasting similar. In the same way, if you search for “speak” in the thesaurus you’ll find “perorate.” But if I want to say “I could hear my father speaking in the other room” I can’t just substitute in “I could hear my father perorating in the other room” because it means “to bring a speech to a close with a formal conclusion.” Now, if that’s exactly what he was doing, finishing up some lengthy lecture to my sister, perorate would be the perfect word to use… assuming my reader understood that’s what it means. Since the context doesn’t make it clear and most people would have to look the word up, I should probably choose another way to say this.

CAVEAT: sometimes you really want to throw down that five-dollar word. Maybe you have a character who speaks like that precisely to set up misunderstandings with other characters. Maybe you want to write in a style that’s almost unreadable without a dictionary to make a point to your reader when you clarify halfway through or start tossing in AAVE/AAE (the preferred acronym is a little up in the air right now). Go ahead and do that! I’m not trynna steal your fancy words. I love them. Coruscate. Petrichor. Nugatory. I collect them. Just know what you’re doing when you use them, and have a good reason.

I meant it about the transitive property thing

Remember “I heard my father speaking?” Let’s look at some other options from the thesaurus.

Hahah oh y’all it’s now ten minutes later and I’ve been down the most glorioius thesaurical rabbithole. But that brings me back to my original point that I was going to make, which is that there’s still no transitive property of synonyms. So if I start from “speak” I get both “shout” and “mutter” which obviously don’t mean the same thing at all. Even though I could use one of them instead of “speak” if I meant “speak very loudly” or “speak indistinctly.”

That’s the real strength of the thesaurus, after all: it gives you the words that you can use to edit out your adverbs.

But let’s talk for just a second about what happened to me. I started at “speak.” Then I thought “enunciate” might be a good word to use, so I clicked on it. After all, it was a little more precise and descriptive, but not quite what I meant. From enunciate I went to promulgate, and thence to disseminate.

Do you see what happened? Even though all these word pairs can be different flavors of saying the same thing, once you get three or four almost-matches down the rabbithole, you’re left with “disseminate” which means to scatter or distribute, not to speak. You can’t keep chasing synonyms and assuming they mean the same thing as the word you started with. Like any word that’s not in the natural range of your vocabulary, look that last word up. You could be saying “infer” when you mean “imply” or “confer.”

TL;dr

If you find yourself using a word or phrase too often, try to write what you’re saying in a different way. Sometimes that means rephrasing your sentence or paragraph, sometimes that means killing a darling, and sometimes it’s as easy as grabbing the thesaurus. Just don’t fall into the thesaurus trap: using a word you or your readers aren’t familiar with should be done with care and probably a dictionary. Otherwise, your readers are just going to glance at your work and then glance away.