I'm going to break with my tradition of posting filler on Fridays, and instead I'd like to talk about use of words, specifically repetition of one word versus using synonyms. When I was a wee sprig of a boy in grammar school, one of my teachers claimed that repeating a word in a piece of prose was Bad Writing. For example, if you are writing about a wagon, you should not use the word "wagon" twice in the same sentence, or paragraph, or on the same page even. Instead of repetition, writers are supposed to follow the rule of "Elegant Variation," where you find synonyms for "wagon" and use those instead, or recast sentences to avoid naming the object in question. I heard this advice later on in college, and I've read it in books about writing, too. I know professional editors who also believe this is a good rule to follow. My opinion?
In a lot of instances, this rule is complete and utter bullshit. There, I've said it. Now I'll give an example of what I mean.
In researching this post, I ran across the article How to Write Less Efficiently, by Arthur A. Stern, The English Journal © 1967. I quote his wonderful article in part:
"The student comes away with the impression that repeating words and phrases is a Bad Thing. His writing, accordingly, may be dreary, ineffective, and unnecessarily hard to read. Let us see what might have happened if Abraham Lincoln had received such advice and taken it seriously. Lincoln is reported to have said
It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all the time.
We perceive immediately that Mr. Lincoln has succeeded rather poorly in avoiding repetition. No matter. We shall repair his rhetoric by using synonyms and pronouns as the handbooks recommend:
It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even deceive some of them on every occasion; but it is not always possible to trick everyone.
There. Doesn't the style sound familiar?"
Pardon me while I laugh again, because I find stuff like this to be hi-sterical. Okay, I'm done now.
Here's the thing: it is perfectly acceptable to use the same word to describe something as often as you need to. Why? Because sometimes, there is only one perfect word for that thing (object, action or whatever). Use it. The goal is to communicate your meaning to your reader, not to show that you own a thesaurus. While editors and writers are noticing that you've repeated yourself, your reader will be taking note of the point you're making, so You Win.
Here's a fine example of repetition, from D.H. Lawrence:
She remembered to have hated her father’s overbearing manner towards her gentle, humorous, kindly-souled mother. She remembered running over the breakwater at Sheerness and finding the boat. She remembered to have been petted and flattered by all the men when she had gone to the dockyard, for she was a delicate, rather proud child. She remembered the funny old mistress, whose assistant she had become, whom she had loved to help in the private school.
Note: unless you are deliberately repeating a sentence structure for effect, it's best not to begin sentences with the same word over and over. You fall into a repetitive rhythm which might lull your reader to sleep. All the usual caveats about that, too, of course.
Another good example of repetition is the "honorable men" speech from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."
Are you writing about an emotion, like guilt? You can refer to guilt with the word "guilt." You don't have to find absurd synonyms for it like "the miasma of regret" or "the rusting-through of my soul" or whatever. Please don't. Please, I beg of you. Don't. I'll come to your house and hit you. Hard.
Let's talk about dialogue tags, where this sort of thing rears its amazingly ugly head too often. If you find yourself writing, for example,
"...I said to the tall, handsome stranger"
"...I said to the red-haired dwarf"
"...I said to him"
"...I said to [Name of Character]"
then take a moment, take a breath, and calm down. You don't need to do this. First, you can probably cut every instance of "to [X]" after "...I said." Really, give it a try and see what happens. Clarity of prose, I'm betting. Second, you can probably eliminate about half your dialogue tags without losing your reader. Every line of speech does not require tagging. Your readers are bright. Third, those awkward descriptive tags that avoid pronouns or the character name are, well, awkward and frankly not a little silly. You look silly when you use them. Are you writing a comedy in a comic style? No? Then knock it off.
The thing to remember about synonyms, which is a thing that makes our language (no matter what your native tongue) so immensely fabulous and fun to play with, is that they are Not Direct Substitutes. Hot, sweltering, steamy, warm and blistering all have to do with heat, but they do Not All Mean Exactly The Same Thing. If you use that thesaurus, use your dictionary too. Nothing's worse than using a word that doesn't mean what you think it means. People will roll their eyes and say nasty things about you behind your back. Sometimes in front of you, too. So realize that there are shades of meaning in all of these words, and you should pick the word that best reflects what you mean in your writing. I suggest leaning on that word as much as you have to and leaving your thesaurus alone. See if your prose isn't clearer and more easily understood.
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