Monday, May 17, 2010

Editorial Tip of the Week: Use A Different Word

Overusing words is a common affliction of the writer. It can happen to anyone. Some words simply have a knack for getting themselves noticed--repeatedly. Words don't realize that in frequenting the page they are receiving the wrong kind of attention. They don't know that they would be much stronger, much more respected if they only came by occasionally. Your words ought to play hard to get, they should be aloof and mysterious. Don't let the attention hogs of the written word soil an otherwise decent text. We're writing in a language of countless synonyms, take advantage of this.

Obviously, some words are unavoidably overused. Prepositions, demonstratives, articles, and conjunctions will always have VIP reservations throughout your manuscript. No one will take note of how many times they've read the word, "the." Similarly, you can usually get away with repeating nouns, particularly concrete nouns. If you are writing about a boat, for example, you can use terms like "ship" or "vessel" but the word "boat" will still be justified in its recurring presence. If instead of concrete, you are writing about an abstract, like say, "truth," you will want to utilize similar terms so that "truth" doesn't lose its meaning through repetition. As for the stars of the show--the adjectives, the verbs and adverbs--they should always be eclectically distributed. Words most likely to be abused include: "interesting", "good" and "very." Grace Fleming of uses the example "the book was very interesting" in contrast to, "the text was quite motivating." You want to choose words that most accurately depict what it is you mean to say--if you shoot for specific rather than vague, it will be more difficult to overuse words.

There isn't a solid rule about how often a word can appear in a piece of writing, it boils down to instinct and preference. Generally though, if you're going to reuse a word, incidences should be far enough apart that your reader will have forgotten they've seen the word before. Depending on the uniqueness of the word, a page in between is probably an adequate distance.

Word over usage happens. Luckily, there is a cure: your thesaurus. I know, I know, it sort of feels like cheating, but rest assured there is no shame in cracking open that little book of expanding vocabulary, or even in using the one built in to your word processing program. Keep in mind, though, that this too must be used in moderation. There is a delicate balance between artfully incorporating a varied diction and sounding like the thesaurus itself.

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