Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Forty Words for "Looked"

Sandra Parshall

People who keep track of such things report that the English language has almost one million words. Why, then, do I have so much trouble coming up with another way to say looked?

Every writer will know what I’m talking about. It’s that broken-record thing your mind does without your conscious awareness. I can write a complete first draft without realizing that I’ve used a vocabulary of 200 words, tops. When I shift into rewrite mode, my inner editor is aghast to discover the same verb two dozen times -- in every chapter. She looked. He looked. They both looked. Again and again and again.

[Pause to bang head on desk.]

Out comes my copy of the Rodale Synonym Finder. Peered? A specialty word to be used sparingly, but great in certain contexts. Peeked? How many adults ever peek? Glanced and stared are easy to abuse, and like looked, they can multiply faster in a manuscript than hangers in a closet.

When I begin a manuscript with the intention of avoiding looked, some other word invariably moves in and takes over. Glared is one of my worst rough draft habits. My characters, always a high-strung lot, glare at each other, at traffic, at stormy skies, at pets and inanimate objects, all the way through the first draft. I never realize I’m doing this while I’m doing it.

[Pause for more head-banging.]

My only remedy is to read through the first draft and make a list of overused words so I can replace them next time around. I’m always dismayed how little this list varies from one manuscript to the next. [Do you ever learn? Apparently not.]

English sometimes feels like a blunt-force weapon to me, lacking the delicate calibration of other languages. We don’t have marvelous words like Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude and hikikomori to convey complex emotional states. To say the same thing, writers and speakers of English have to string several words into a phrase or an entire sentence. Even angst and macho are borrowed from other languages.

Alaskan Native Americans have forty words for snow, to denote its many states and textures. I have three: snow, the generic white stuff; slush, what the generic white stuff becomes when it lands on warm pavement; and snirt, the dirty mounds of once-white stuff that are created by plows and always seem to last into May.

English may not have forty words for snow, but it has plenty of alternatives to said, and enthusiastic writers try to use all of them. I am no exception. Ironically, though, said is one word that should be allowed to stand in most cases, because our characters become ridiculous when they’re constantly exclaiming, shouting, pleading, crying, whispering, expostulating, etc. Said is believed to be invisible to the reader, regardless of how many times the writer uses it -- unlike, say, looked and glared. So I often find myself striking some of the alternatives and upping my said total in later drafts.

I confess that I feel a mean little spark of glee when I realize that a well-known writer has failed to tame a bad word habit. One bestselling author, for example, is addicted to the word coursed. Adrenaline coursed through him. Anger coursed through her. Panic coursed through her. Joy coursed through her. And, of course, desire coursed through him. The author’s books are popular all over the world, which indicates that little or no irritation has coursed through her fans.

Are writers the only people who notice these things? Do they matter at all to readers who are not writers themselves? Maybe not. Maybe a book with incessantly glaring characters would go over well with readers. But as long as my overused words make me want to bang my head on my desk, I’ll continue to keep my list and spend days finding alternatives before I declare a manuscript finished.


Stephen D. Rogers said...

Don't forget "looked" used to mean "appeared." Double your usage!

Easily my most overused word.

Sandra Parshall said...

Stephen, you've planted "appeared" in my brain and it will probably start popping up on every page I write... Thanks!

Darlene Ryan said...

Sandy, you're not the only one with this problem. In the manuscript I just finished I had way more vomiting --yes vomiting--than any story needs. Although in my defense I did use every euphemism for the word I could think of.

Sandra Parshall said...

Yes, Darlene, a little vomiting goes a long way. That's one I haven't had a problem with (yet), fortunately. My characters do frown a lot, though. When they're not glaring.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, you've hit a nerve. I read somebody's rant on "padded" a year or two ago, and since then, it's a speed bump every time I see it. I used it myself with great reluctance this week in my current ms, but I don't know if I'll let it stand, even though our characters, like the rest of us, do occasionally walk around in bare or stockinged feet. My editor, the great Ruth Cavin, has a thing about "stepped," so I'm very careful to avoid that one.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I DO know a real-English synonym for "has a thing about"--"particularly dislikes." Just thought of it.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, the only "padding" in my stories is done by cats, but I should probably try to find at least one other way to describe the way they walk. So the great Ms. Cavin doesn't like "stepped"? What do you use instead?

Kaye George said...

I critique partner found 118 occurrences of the word "little" in a ms. of mine! I don't, evidently, think big.

Sandra Parshall said...

Running "Find" on a particular word can leave you in shock. But if you leave those things in the ms and it reaches an editor's eyes, the repetitions may act like the slow drip of water torture and doom your chances of a sale.

Rosemary Harris said...

I laughed, guffawed, chuckled and snickered at your post. Looked is difficult. After glanced, peered, witnessed, watched, peeked, and observed... where do you go? "Saw" starts to sound good. Invisible, like "said."
My characters have yet to frown...but they will, a little, in the next book, after they pad into the bathroom to barf. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Sandra, when you've conquered "looked," could you do something about "sighed" for me? I've got enough people sighing to start a wind storm.

krimileser said...

I really liked this post.

But "Alaskan Native Americans have forty words for snow, to denote its many states and textures." is as far as I know just a urban legend. The Eskimoan language group uses suffixes to add to word roots. So if you like you could construct thousands of words, but there are no more roots than in the English language.

Please allow me to add a link to a post by Geoffrey K. Pullum who really is the expert in this matter: