Wednesday, March 09, 2011

On Writing: Look!

Jack looked across at her with a pensive look on his face.
‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ he said.
‘It looked like a ghost,’ she replied, then looking past him she cried, ‘Look out!’

I was about to write that the above is a huge exaggeration of my long-time love affair with the utility of the word ‘look’ but, having spent some time editing The Parasite, I’m not so sure it is. This was one tendency of mine that my editor Peter Lavery picked up on, and it’s one that displays the differences between the three vocabularies. You have your reading, writing and speaking vocabularies which, respectively, are in descending order of size. There were of course many words other than ‘look’ I could have used. All of them were sitting there in my reading vocabulary, but I just wasn’t using them.

It seemed to come as a revelation to me that someone might ‘peer, gaze, glance, stare or peek’ at something, or that they might ‘watch, study, observe or regard’ something, or that there were alternatives to ‘look like’ or ‘looked like’. I could go on and on but any of you reading this in the hope of picking up a tip or two are all probably using Word and have access to a thesaurus. Highlight ‘look’ and take a look at scrutinize the many alternative words that are available.

But of course that is not enough. Words like this are those we are often blind to, so we need to either pore over our work anew, or have someone else take a look at it examine it. Our words need to be closely inspected, contemplated and studied. ‘Look’ is useful, but does it have the nuance of meaning of the alternatives? Does it have the gravitas of ‘regard’, the brevity of ‘glance’, the myopia of ‘peer’ or the analytical inference of ‘study’?

Note: Generally you don’t have your character ‘peer’ at the one he’s deeply in love with, or ‘gaze’ at the plans to the bank vault he’s about to raid, and he doesn’t ‘examine’ the view … unless of course you’re trying to twist and tweak something, or maybe work in some character-building. The half-blind lover might peer. The inept bank robber might gaze (probably with bafflement) at those vault plans. And the cold military commander might examine the view.

Here’s a suggestion: take a paragraph of your work and go through it word by word checking it against your thesaurus. I bet you will find at least one word you would like to change – one word that adds meaning by simple replacement.

Jack gazed across at her, his expression pensive.
‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ he said.
‘It seemed like a ghost,’ she replied, then glancing past him she cried, ‘Watch out!’

12 comments:

Jebel Krong said...

as long as you don't start and finish every sentence with 'innit' i think you'll be fine... :p

Neal Asher said...

I only ever say that sarcastically, Jebel.

Bugger, I've just realized my strike-throughs didn't copy across.

Neil said...

I think you need the Word Count function to be enhanced, so that each use of a particular word, in it's various tenses, is counted. Allowing a word usage review.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

i would definitely gaze at a bank vault and then pull out a gun which will be my house keys.

word has a thesaurus? i'm quitting notepad as of today.

peep it!

Fader209 said...

Where's that fucking ghost?!

I always have to re-read* what I write even in short comments like this as I do have a tendency to repeat words/sayings.


*is re-read actually a word? It looks retarded so I'm guessing not.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

on a different butyl foot:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9N6Zb_K2Z0

Disco Stu said...

Interesting video Vaude.

Looks ungainly but does cross various difficult terrain.

Typical 20th/21st century crap robot...8)

Don't know what sniper would say about it. Probably not repeatable in mixed company...8)

Disco Stu said...

Neal - 'before and after' sentences seem, to me, the difference between adult and younger-reader fiction.

I find reading what I've written out loud VERY useful. Is that just me though? Don't know.

Interesting about the different - reading/writing/speaking - vocabularies.

Question - Gridlinked was your first novel right? What was structurally involved in you producing a novel as opposed to your previous shorter works?

Neal Asher said...

Neil, I would rather that function was operating between my ears rather than rely on the computer.

Vaude, the version I have has a very good thesaurus, and dictionary.

Fader209. If you don't like it you can always employ the word 'again'.

Disco Stu, reading stuff out loud is something I keep telling myself I must do, and keep neglecting to do. Yes, it's good.

Gridlinked was my first novel published by a major publisher. I wrote four novels before it. Structurally a novel doesn't have to be so tight, you can relax, digress a bit, explore characters or (in my case) enjoy some world building.

Mr. Maigo said...

That bugs me in my writing. I truly dislike using the same world more than once.

Some writers seem to have blind spots and in a novel, they'll have every line of dialog will end 'he said/she said'.

xpndsprt said...

Carapace, I love that word

xpndsprt said...

Carapace this and Carapace that, god I love that word.