Thursday, October 17, 2013

Self-Editing #8 - Getting Specific: NOUNS

This self-editing tip is another that's going to take some time and some intentional re-reading. But it's also a great philosophy to adopt in drafting:

A good writer uses specific nouns to offer clarity in minimal wordcount. They paint a detailed picture - not to complicate or exaggerate, but to be clear and succinct.

To whit:

"The noun rhinoceros flashes a sharper, more meaningful picture to your reader than does the noun animal. But animal is sharper and more meaningful than creature. In the same way, consider bungalow versus house versus building... starlet versus girl versus female... Colt versus revolver versus firearm..."

-Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer

The fewer words you can use to communicate the idea, the easier the reader will follow - and the broader the world built in their head in the shortest time. In other words: You'll write more efficiently.

So scour your manuscript for nouns and ask yourself: Is that the very best and clearest word for this person-place-or-thing?

Then let the nouns speak for themselves.

Why am I talking about nouns instead of verbs or adjectives? Well, primarily because we're covering verbs in the next post. But since you brought adjectives up (yes, you did), I'll make one brief point:
If you let your nouns speak for themselves wherever possible, adjectives will be less necessary. And where they do crop up, more effective.

But don't mix up being specific with over-stating. Say one thing clearly - not impressively. What's the difference? Here's a quote from C. S. Lewis:

"Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."

I'd add to that, don't say 'wonderful' for something that is merely 'sweet'. And never use 'devastated' when your character is simply 'sad'.

Good writing is simple, clear and leaves no room for confusion or distraction. (It also doesn't get impressed with it's own ability to synonymise). Good writing is also specific. It doesn't exaggerate or over-state because that creates melodrama in the minds-eye of the reader.

If the reader is spending time thinking about how beautifully you phrased something, or how impressive your vocabulary is, they aren't deep in the story. They may admire your prose, but be unable to tell their friends what the story was about.

So, what's your goal? For me, I want my words to be invisible, disappearing behind the clear and fascinating picture they paint.

Your Turn: Does this advice / approach apply only to commercial fiction, or to literary fiction also? What are your thoughts?


  1. This is great. One problem I have is that sometimes I need to talk about the same item several times in one page, or even one paragraph, and using the item's name or the word "it" becomes repetitive. So then I look for synonyms to help. Is this okay? Or not?

  2. I came across this recently because I have characters in a story that are travelling trhough port towns. I get sick of using the terms, "fisherman" and "traveller," when describing the people they interact with occasionally. So when I finally get to the editing stages I know for sure I will neeed to look back and find other words that I can use.

  3. I love this. Seriously, Aimee, Swain's book (which I heard about for the first time here) completely changed the way I write for the better.

    I'm not sure if this could apply to literary fiction, as I tend to read mostly commercial, but to offer my thoughts to Anne (Hi Anne! *waves*), I know exactly what you mean, and I think that "it" can get repetitive, but it can also be incredibly noticeable if you try to inject a synonym just to avoid using the word again, you know? Similar to how we sometimes omit adverbs because we "can't have adverbs" and it becomes obvious? Just my two cents.

  4. Ann - I really don't think I can answer that from a professional point of view as I haven't struck any discussion or material in my craft books that address it specifically. I will see if I can find an editor to pop through and give us an opinion. But as a reader I think "it" is one of those invisible words. When you've already established what the thing is, "it" is just a placeholder in my head that let's me focus on the other details. I know I use it that way... No pun intended.

  5. Yes to literary also, imho. The best literary is not more convoluted and obscure in language; it tells a different and often more symbolic kind of story. In order to communicate its intended meaning, I'd argue it's important to be even more specific about word choices than we would for more familiar and accessible concepts.

  6. I just finished reading Dwight Swain's book. Amazing read! I strongly recommend it to anyone. Aimee, you really did a good job at capturing this piece of advice. Its often too easy to use a more familiar noun with an adjective instead of the exact right word.