Sunday, 3 September 2017

Writing Ramble: On Invisible Words (Pt. 1)

A few weeks ago, I was discussing editing with a couple of writer friends, and the conversation came round to the topic of overusing common words.  The consensus seemed to be that such words were effectively rendered invisible, and so it didn't matter how frequently they cropped up; their very familiarity would let them slip under the radar.

Now, I won't say that's not true; for many readers, I'm sure it is.  Get engaged enough in a story and it'll take more than an overabundance of speech tags to drag you out of it, or even eight uses of a word like "look" or "then" or "but" on a page.  But it's certainly not universally true, and I say this as someone who was taken to task by an editor last year (quite rightly!) for abusing a certain popular pronoun - or, more recently, by a reviewer for over-reliance of a word just uncommon enough to stand out.

The lesson I learned the hard way was, however invisible you might think a word - or phrase, or stylistic tick - is, if you overuse it enough, there'll always be someone out there who'll call you on the fact.  So, in honour of that eagle-eyed reader, here are four reasons that overusing words, even ones so common that they hardly register, may not be such a great idea...

- If They're invisible, Why Have Them?
Look, I don't mean to be invisibilist here, I've seen enough movies to know that invisible people can make meaningful contributions to society.  But I'm not convinced that's so true of words.  "Said" is a fine example here: I've heard it claimed that no matter how many "he said"s and "she said"s you throw at a reader, they'll never tire, purely because the phrase is so fundamental that it goes ignored.  I beg to differ - in fact, I'd argue that ending every line of dialogue with a speech tag makes your writing look like it belongs to a five year old! - but that's beside the present point.  If the reader's going to ignore those speech tags, what are they doing but taking up space?  If you're getting paid by the word then fair enough, but if not then maybe they'd be better stripped down to a point where they're actually serving some useful purpose.
- Bad Habits Become Worse Habits Become Bad Writing
Nine times out of ten, you overuse a word or phrase because it's easy to do so; that's the first word or phrase that comes to mind in a particular context, and you're rushing, and there it goes, the fifth "only" or "even" or "however" of the page.  But good writing and easy writing are in many ways polar opposites, and the habit of accumulating favourite words and even sentences may give you a recognizable style, but it'll be a recognizably crappy one.  Soon enough you're writing everything according to the same rhythms, with similarly shaped paragraphs and dialogue that follows the same patterns and not a jot of energy or variety left anywhere.  Of course, you're probably hugely successful, because I've just described every hack writer ever, but who cares about that, right?  Formulaic writing might put food on the table, but challenging yourself - um - probably feeds the soul or something.
- My Invisible Isn't Your Invisible
Okay, so this is basically the point I made in the introduction, but it bears repeating: reading habits vary wildly, and what you think is perfectly fine might be just what's guaranteed to leave an editor frothing at the mouth.  Here's an example: I recently read a story where the author leaned heavily on comma splices; you know, those sentences missing a crucial coordinating conjunction that Word loves to stick green lines under.  One or two, or even one or two a page, would have passed unnoticed, but once I noticed that they were cropping up like clockwork they became so hard to ignore that they were all I could see.  And really, the last thing you want as a writer is to have stylistic ticks that are so obvious they're all the reader notices.
- Just Because A Word Works That Doesn't Make it the Right Word
The more you favour certain words in the assumption that they'll slip under the radar, the more likely you are to try and fill square holes with round pegs.  There's a lot to be said for taking extra time to really dig through the thesaurus in search of that word that actually means what you're after, instead of making do with one that's more or less in the right ballpark and hey no-one's going to notice anyway right?  Making the quick and easy choices can leave a reader puzzled, and trust me when I say that as a slush-reader it's a colossal turn-off to realise that a writer's gone for the lazy word choices every time at the expense of clarity, detail and complexity.  Once you're tuned into that, it gets really hard to miss, and all those supposedly invisible words that are either doing nothing or taking up space that could go to really useful words begin to stand out like so many sore thumbs.
Now, this is obviously all just my somewhat warped perspective, and I'm conscious that a lot of that warping was done by the fact that I seem to have spent most of this year editing rather than writing, and now I can't read a license plate without hunting for typos.  Still, I think that the basic points are sound: overusing words, especially because you've persuaded yourself that no-one will notice, is a risky business, and one that's sure to bite you in the ass.  Or see you landing a multi-million pound contract.  But definitely one or the other!

And in part two, if and when I find the time and energy to write it, I'll go over some of what I've personally been up to track down those darn invisible (and not so invisible) words...

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