“Pick your words with care” Ford Prefect warns Zaphod Beeblebrox in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I think that’s great advice for all writers. When you’re writing, it can be very easy to lose yourself in your fantastic plot. Your characters take on a life of their own and you’re away, giving a narrative account of the thrilling happenings in their lives. Unfortunately, this can mean that word choice suffers. In the best works of literature, every word is working hard to create a precise image, an exact impression on the reader. Chilean author Isabel Allende meticulously goes through every word of English translations of her novels, making sure that they are true to her original meaning.
One of the worst consequences of failure to focus on word choice is repetition. Repeated words indicate a lack of craft to the reader; they can infer a lack of originality. ‘Said’ is a regular issue. The word ‘said’ is, in fact, saying very little. Usually the preceding or following text is in speech marks, so the reader is already fully aware that it is being ‘said’ so tell them something they don’t know! What is that character’s tone or expression? How has what they’ve shared affected the atmosphere? Consider this example from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:
“Fiscal policy. . .” he repeated, “that is what I said.”
“How can you have money,” demanded Ford, “if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn’t grow on trees you know.”
“If you would allow me to continue.. .”
Ford nodded dejectedly.
“Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.”
Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
“But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut.”
Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The management consultant waved them down.
Choosing different verbs and describing reactions can give vigour and immediacy to a text. Verb choice is worth getting right and can do a great deal for characterisation and mood. Try to think exactly how your characters each walk, talk and move – what habits do they have? We can tell a lot about the impetuous and larger than life character that is Zaphod Beeblebrox from the verbs Adams uses to describe his speech: spat, demanded, muttered, seethed, bawled. These all appear on one double page. Compare this to the nervy Arthur Dent: gibbered, asked, whispered, protested, goggled.
If you see a word repeated often in your text, particularly close together, the first thing to do is reach for the thesaurus. Every writer should have a quality thesaurus. Looking up ‘synonyms’ on Word is okay, but a thesaurus will provide a more thorough list and give options categorised under multiple possible meanings. A good edition will also provide a sentence for context of trickier words. If you’re considering using a word that you’re not completely familiar with, check it in a dictionary to make sure it means exactly what you intend it to. Every writer should also have a quality dictionary.
A varied vocabulary gives you greater nuance of meaning, enriching your writing to give the reader a more enjoyable and entertaining experience. Because of our history, the English language has more synonyms than any other language. Writers, you have a wealth of options from which to choose! Standard English adults have a vocabulary of around 20,000 words – are you using yours to its full potential?
By the way, if you haven’t already, do read some Douglas Adams!
The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
Thanks for reading! I’m always fascinated to know your thoughts and do please like and share!