Part one of the "Variety Is the Spice of Life, and I Need Some Tums" set of essays. For the others, see:
Purple Fanfic's (total lack of) Majesty | Epithets: Fandom's Designated Hitters | Said Is Not a Four-Letter Word
written December 2004
H.W. Fowler, in The King's English, used the term "elegant variation" to describe writing that uses lots of synonyms and other replacements to avoid repetition.
He didn't mean it as a compliment.
That's not to say that all synonyms are bad; far from it. English is a rich language that provides incredible shades of meaning for many concepts, and writing that takes advantage of that with good reason can be wonderful. Sometimes you really do want to reach for an alternative word.
The truth is, there are good reasons for all that advice about varying one's prose by avoiding repetition. The trick is to learn when repetition is good, and when variation is the way to go. It all depends on what the word is, and what the context is.
For instance, say you have this sentence:
Blair looked at the harbinger of pure evil standing before him, sighed, and signed up for six boxes of Thin Mints, wondering how he could hide them from Jim.
You probably don't want to repeat the word "harbinger" any time soon in your story. You probably don't want to repeat it at all.
It's an unusual word, and using it once gives your story freshness and flavor -- but using it more than once will be very noticeable, and not in a good way. Your readers will think you're either trying too hard to sound "elegant", or you're so in love with the word itself you can't see that you're overusing it. Either way, it looks bad.
Something like "[six boxes of] Thin Mints", though, can be repeated. Or, if you really want to use a variation, it can be "cookies", or even "Girl Scout cookies".
What you don't want to do is keep varying it, so that it moves from "Thin Mints" to "Girl Scout cookies" to "mint-flavored confections" to "chocolate-covered minty treats" to "delicious snack item". Once you move past the standard, normal names for the cookies, it becomes painfully obvious that you're just trying desperately to avoid repeating the words. (Unless you're writing in the Buffyverse; you could get away with all of those in dialogue for the Scoobies, because they all consistently reached for different ways to say things. But that's about it -- and it wouldn't work for Giles.)
The more common a word is, the better it is to repeat it where necessary. The more uncommon a word is, the more careful you have to be about how often you use it, and where, and why. Uncommon words leap off the page or screen at the reader, forcing them to really notice how something's being said -- instead of noticing what is being said.
Fowler's less-than-complimentary "elegant variation" comes in when people use synonyms because they think a "fancier" word sounds better or makes them seem smarter (rather than because it means more precisely what the author wants to convey), or because they think they're not allowed to repeat words because repetition is boring.
This leads to all sorts of problems:
In their quest to be "elegant", some authors never learn to stop and think about what words they're using, to decide if there's a better alternative. They just randomly use a variety of words, assuming that if they're all listed together in the thesaurus, they all mean pretty much exactly the same thing.
She smirked sweetly, tenderly touching his cheek.
Nick smirked lovingly at him.
This is a common error that drives me nuts: "smirk" where the author means "smile". Authors see it there in their thesaurus, listed under "smile", and think "wow, what a nifty word! That sounds much better, I'll use that."
What they don't seem to realize is that it means "to smile in an affected or smug manner; to simper". It's almost never an appealing expression; very occasionally it can be playful, but usually, if someone's smirking at you, your first reaction is to want to smack them. And not playfully.
Another problem is canonical words or phrases that get taken out of context or misunderstood, and take on a life of their own.
Blair agreed, all the while obfuscating through his teeth.
Stammering slightly, he tried to reassure his friend.
"I'm fine, Shell, don't worry. It's just---"
A sharp exhalation of air from beside him stopped his obvious attempt at obfuscation.
In The Sentinel, Blair once used the word "obfuscate" to explain how he'd distracted people away from the question they'd asked him, so he could avoid giving an honest answer. I don't think he ever used it again, and no one else used the word regularly in reference to him. But it got picked up as fanon, and has been used for years in the fanfic -- almost always incorrectly. Most Sentinel authors use it as a direct synonym for "lie"; what it really means is "to make obscure" or "confuse" -- basically, to distract people from the issue at hand, exactly as Blair used it. If the authors had used the plain, simple "lie", rather than reaching for an elegant variant, the sentences would be fine; as it is, they're awkward and incorrect.
The same thing can happen in almost any fandom. In Pros, some authors assume that "sunshine" is a specific term of endearment between Bodie and Doyle, when in fact it's a common term in British English, and often has an edge to it (rather than dripping with affection). LotR is full of terms that many authors don't quite understand, but think sound atmospheric, and which thus get used incorrectly.
In every case, taking a moment to look up the words that you're not sure about can make all the difference.
I could pinpoint his livid complexion; the attractive blue coloured eyes of perpetual shades, and his slovenly, gorgeous, dark brown hair.
(For more examples from this story, see the Purple Fanfic essay.)
This is a pretty extreme example, but it does a fantastic job of illustrating the dangers of using words out of a list in a thesaurus without checking the dictionary to be sure they have the right shade of meaning.
his livid complexion:
I think what she really wanted was "pale complexion", and went for pretty much the worst possible synonym for pale under the circumstances.
Basically, she managed to get the complete opposite meaning I think she was going for -- she meant always-different, and wound up with always-the-same.
his slovenly, gorgeous, dark brown hair:
She probably wanted "tousled hair", or something similar -- something that implies messy-but-still-cute. Instead, she presented an image of someone who hasn't washed or combed his hair in days.
A thesaurus is a wonderful thing -- but a dictionary is better. All of these mistakes could have been avoided if the author had looked up the words she found in her thesaurus. There are almost no synonyms in English that are precise matches for each other; the beauty of the language is that each holds a slightly different shade of meaning. Using them correctly can add depth to a story. Using them incorrectly can confuse the reader, or, worse, send them off into fits of laughter at the ridiculousness of what you inadvertantly wrote.
Along with using words without understanding their meaning, authors also fall prey to using them incorrectly, by assuming they perfectly match the initial word they looked up in the thesaurus. The meaning is correct, but the form of the word is completely wrong.
"I'll be fine," he assured.
"We made a bet," Jim reminded.
"We're leaving at six," he informed with a stern look.
"Hey," Daniel greeted quietly.
The verbs there -- "assured", "reminded", "informed", "greeted" -- are all transitive verbs. They take an object; something needs to follow them, to accept the action of the verb. The object can be a name, a pronoun, or some other noun that shows who's being assured, reminded, informed, or greeted (e.g., "the group", "the others", "everyone"). But without the object, those sentences make no sense.
The authors who wrote those sentences never bothered to think about how these words worked; they just plugged them in as though they must work the same way as the word they're replacing, "said".
The other main problem in this category is irregular verbs. Many authors don't bother to figure out what tense they actually need to match the rest of the sentence they're writing, and just use whatever form of the verb occurs to them first.
He shrunk back against the wall.
They jumped off as the boat sunk, and swum for shore.
The "shrunk" should be "shrank"; "sunk" should be "sank"; "swum" should be "swam". Using the wrong form is incredibly jarring to anyone who knows the right form (which is most people -- these are fairly common verbs), and can even come across as sounding illiterate. It's worth looking up irregular verbs and taking the time to try out different tense forms to find the right one, if you're not sure about it. Or if you know it's one of those things that you're just blocked on, and no matter how often you look it up you still get it wrong, make sure you have a beta who can check for them and fix them for you.
Beyond the basics of unfamiliar words used incorrectly, the search for variety in one's writing simply for variety's sake leads to some of the biggest problems in fanfic (and in other writing as well): purple prose, epithets, and fear of "said".
Purple prose is overblown, highly descriptive and emotive writing. Purple-prose birds don't just sing at the coming of dawn, they burst forth in abandoned paeans of joy at the first blush of the tender morn.
Epithets appear when authors get tired of using character names or think that the name is boring, which happens all too often. In some stories, the poor characters all appear to have multiple-personality disorder. First Jim Ellison's a cop, then he's a sentinel, then he's an older man, then he's a former Ranger, then he's a detective, then he's nothing but a pair of blue eyes, then he's Ellison, then he's a balding head, then he's a cop again, then he's a balding cop, then he's a sentinel again, then he's Jim, then he's a distraught man, then he's a senior detective...
Worst of all, many characters show symptoms of MPD while having sex, cycling through their minor personalities at a disturbing rate.
Okay, technically, that's probably not fair. Authors aren't necessarily thinking they need to force their characters to emote; they think "said" is boring, and that people won't read their stories if they're bored. The fact is, though, that many stories are full of people who grouse, murmur, sigh, growl, yell, shout, bark, command, query, insist, intone, lament, lecture, plead, pout, scream, urge, enthuse, beseech, and so forth, while barely ever just saying things.
The result of all that is a story where everyone always seems to be emoting every word they say, incredibly dramatically. It's exhausting to read, especially if, like many readers, you apply tone to dialogue depending on the dialogue tag (or surrounding action). Think of being in a room where absolutely no one is speaking in a normal tone of voice, even when all they're doing is exchanging pleasantries about the weather. You'd wind up with a headache.
While any story can contain any of those, there's a hierarchy of sorts.
All of these can badly weaken a story when used to excess. When all authors are worried about is reaching for elegant variation in their prose, instead of worrying about clarity and flow, story and reader both suffer for it.
Every writer can fall prey to any of these problems, and most have, at some point. God knows I have -- it's pretty easy to find examples of "fear of said" on my site from my earlier fiction, and epithetism, and there's probably purple prose scattered around, too. But they're all fixable mistakes, and it's worth paying attention to avoid these pitfalls.