Synonyms for effect

In this series of blogs I am thinking about how to use language more effectively: to help breathe life and dimension into fiction. Synonyms are different words with same or similar meanings. It occurs to me as I write, how easy it is to repeat the same words all the way through a piece of writing. The word ‘looked’ is one of my own bad examples – so I have found some alternatives. But of course, it is not simply a case of swapping words.

No synonyms have exactly the same meaning. They are similar. So I consider my list: stared, gaped, peered, gazed, peeped, studied and ‘fixed her gaze’. Which to choose? It depends on the precise meaning of the sentence. Is my character simply looking in a casual way? Is she looking more closely – studying, perhaps? Is my character looking in a furtive way – peeping? Or is she merely looking for only a split second – glancing? Or, is she looking for a longer than normal length of time – staring? If my character ‘fixed her gaze’ then there must be something specific for her to fix it on. There is more purpose to that ‘gaze’. You see where I am going with this.

Okay, maybe I am fussing over the right word, but isn’t this what we have to do? Isn’t writing all the better for having found the word with exactly the right meaning to fit what our characters are doing? Word level writing builds into sentence level- then into text level. But the words make up the parts of the whole. So in my view, they are worth focusing on.

Consider another common repeat – walked? My character could have – strolled, ambled, meandered, stomped, hobbled, hiked, bounced, shuffled or tottered. She could have also nipped, popped, moseyed along, or ‘legged it’. And this is only part of a list of 60 synonyms for walked. So again, which to choose? Is my character angry – stomped? Is she happy – bounced? Is she afraid – legged it? Or does she ‘hobble’ because she has hurt her leg?

So what do all these synonyms achieve? Why not just write ‘looked’ or ‘walked’ – I ask myself? It is easier than soul searching for vocabulary. Yet, I know the answer. Writing the same word is lazy. It does not do justice to the characters. It does nothing for the quality of our writing. If we want to create characters that are three-dimensional, then we have to choose exactly the right words to fit the thoughts, actions or speech in which those words sit.

So, If I want to write for effect – to tempt and tease my readers to keep on reading – then I now know what to do.

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