: Why you can’t use vivid words too often

I was recently doing the second draft revision of a novel, and adding a necessary tweak in the final chapter, I wrote: It seemed fitting he should pay some price for that, and I may have cast him a rather smug look before I turned… Suddenly, my writer’s ear twitched. Was I using “smug” too often in this story? So I went to my “final check sheet” and added smug 6 to 8 to the part of the list that read:

Go through and find all places where you say some form of “I couldn’t blame him/her” I’m going to say total of 4 in manuscript
Same for “I was/wasn’t surprised…” 8 total
Also “I had to admit” total of 8

These somewhat cryptic notes were to remind me to a global search and find all the variations of those phrases, because revising the manuscript, I felt like I was hearing them too often… But I also knew, roughly, how often I could use them in a 350 page novel without it being “too often.”

If you overuse words or phrases, after a while they start echoing in the reader’s memory and the reader thinks, Wow, they say that a lot in this book. At which point they’ve noticed they’re reading a book, which means they’ve been pulled out of your story. And that’s a Bad Thing.

So what are the guidelines for not overusing words?

The first is that not all words are created equal. They run on a scale, starting with words so bland no one will notice them no matter how often they’re repeated, words like a, an, and, the, and running up to words so vivid you can only use them once in an entire novel. Because I promise, the second time you use the word loquacious, the reader will immediately think, Where did they say that before? Oh, yeah, it was back when… And again, they’ve been yanked out of the story. Parsimonious, ubiquitous, felicitations… I actually used felicitations in the novel I was just revising—and I didn’t have to do a search to know I only used it once. When you’ve used felicitations, you don’t forget it.

But most words fall into a mid-range of vividness. Words like smug which you can use maybe six to eight times—though that may be a bit generous. Turns out I’d used it only four times, and that was enough to tickle my ear and make me run a search. But since each of those uses was more than fifty pages apart, I figured I was fine.

But that brings me to the second guideline, which is that the distance between repetitions matters. You never have to do a global search for different forms of know. But you also don’t want to produce a sentence that reads: He knew that the knowledge would be given to him in due time. In fact, one of the sentences I changed in this revision contained the phrase, It would simply be simpler to… (Blush.) You might use variants on know twice in a long paragraph—though even that might be too much. I think you can probably use variants of know twice on one page, though you should try not to use it three times on a page. But you probably shouldn’t use any form of simple more often than every six to eight pages.

The third is that what you’re writing makes a difference. If you’re writing an article about the pharmaceutical industry, even though the phrases drug manufacturers, big pharma, and companies that make medication can help you out, you’re going to use the word pharmaceutical a lot. And in this article, that’s OK. In a romance where the protagonist is a doctor, I’d say…two to four times in the whole novel, depending on context. On the other hand, if you’re writing a thriller where a drug manufacturer is the bad guy, you might use pharmaceutical upwards of twenty times, and you’ll be fine. This is partly because pharmaceutical is a technical term, and if that’s the subject under discussion, then you need that term. And readers—even a reader’s subconscious—will accept that. On the other hand, if the only thing that happens in your doctor romance is that she meets the hero at a pharmaceutical conference, and you use that word ten times throughout the book, readers will probably notice.

Point four is that this also applies to phrases, not just words. If you rmember my list, I went looking for variations on I was/wasn’t surprised, I couldn’t blame and I had to admit. Also note that I allowed myself more uses of surprise than blame, because …this didn’t surprise me, for I… is slightly less vivid than …I really couldn’t blame him for that. If you’re curious, I cut twenty-one statements that someone was/wasn’t surprised down to nine, blame from thirteen to six, and admit from eleven to six. I know I put my ballpark limit for blame at four, but the usage varied enough I think six works.

Because (guideline five) in the end this is a matter of language art, of the way it feels, more than hard and fast rules.

So how do you know where words and phrases fall on the vividness scale, and how often you can repeat them? The only answer I have for that—I wish I had a better one—is that you have to train your ear. You start by doing the kind of edit that teaches you to catch word echoes in sentences, in paragraphs, and from one page to the next. (My writing tip The Pesky Typo Hunt describes my favorite editing technique.) Eventually, you start “hearing” the words that echo across whole chapters, and multi-chapter stretches. Though if a word’s not in your computer’s spellchecker (loquacious wasn’t) that might be a hint. On the other hand parsimonious, ubiquitous and felicitation sailed through spellcheck without a hitch. In a manuscript I was critiquing last spring the writer used variants of plead eleven times in 292 pages, and that was enough to trip my ear. On the other hand, please is a word that probably wouldn’t bother me if it was used twenty times in the same novel. In the end, you have to develop your own sense of where words fall on the vividness scale—but now, at least, you can start listening for them.

Summer 2014