I'm in the middle of turning a novella into a novel. The story is essentially a one-set exercise, with a cast of only three characters and a limited number of props. Part of the challenge has been coming up with new and varied ways to talk about the same place, prop, or person as the story unfolds.
It's a balancing act. Too much repetition and the book sounds amateurish. Too much novelty and I run the risk of sounding like I wrote with thesaurus at the ready.
As always, I write in search of the perfect word.
The Perfect Word Search is a necessary part of both factual and fictitious writing.
When I was working on Geoff Teall’s book for Trafalgar Square, shortly before the book was due at the printers an issue arose over the use of a single word: classical. As in “classical horsemanship,” “classical techniques,” and “classical riding.”
Those phrases, and others like them, occur throughout the book. But after in-depth discussions with both Geoff and the publishers, it became clear that the word did not accurately reflect Geoff’s intentions. To make matters worse, the phrases that use “classical” as a modifier mean different things to different horsepeople, depending on the discipline of choice.
For instance, Geoff used the word to denote something timeless that was not a modern affectation. He was talking about “correct” or “purposeful” hunt seat riding.
Persons with a background in dressage, however, think of Xenophon and ancient Greece when they think of “classical riding.” The dressage rider’s body position is considerably straighter in the “classical position” than in a hunt seat position.
And the search for the word continued. Mere days before the project went to press, I found myself going over the entire text and analyzing how we had used the word “classical” throughout it. I also wracked my brain to come up with a better word that more accurately reflected what Geoff meant when he said “classical.”
If this seems nit-picky to you, think again. This was not mere word-play. This was our final opportunity to make Geoff’s meaning, teachings, and philosophy crystal clear to the reader. The last thing we wanted was for readers around the world to be confused about what is a central concept within the text.
We’d actually been down this road once already on this project.
Months earlier, Geoff and I had the same sort of exegetic conversation about the use of the word “equitation.” To me, it meant “proper riding.” But to him, it also meant a particular competitive Hunter division and he didn’t want people to read the word and misunderstand its use. Of course, he was right.
What we did was define “equitation” right up front, from the very beginning. Then, any place within the manuscript where there might be some confusion, we used the more benign “riding.”
When faced with what you've written, the reader does not have the luxury of having you explain things that are unclear. So take the time when the project is still in manuscript form to make sure that every word you use means exactly what you want it to. It’s an obvious, but often forgotten truth: When writing, words are all you have. Treat them with respect and use them wisely.
What techniques do you use to help you find the perfect word? How do you avoid sloppy repetition? How do you ensure that your meaning is clear? Share your wisdom in the comments.
And now, if you'll excuse me, the search continues...