Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Forty Words for "Looked"

Sandra Parshall

(I'm at that hair-pulling stage again, feverishly working on last-minute changes to a new book for my editor and trying to root out all the overused words that dot the landscape of my novel like stubborn dandelions. This post, which first appeared here in slightly different form back in the earliest days of Poe's Deadly Daughters, remains as sadly appropriate as ever.) 

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 finding an alternative to “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 inanimate objects and life in general, 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 dismayed at 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, for example, looked and glared. So I often find myself striking some of the alternatives and upping my said total in later drafts. Then my editor tells me to replace most of the dialogue attributions with action.


I confess to feeling 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 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.


Sheila Connolly said...

My characters are staring at your characters who are glaring.

I think "just" is my bane--it just keeps creeping in.

I think it was Robert Parker who said he didn't bother with trying to find alternatives to "said." His theory was that if that was all he used, it became invisible to the reader.

In one of Jonathan Franzen's early (pre-notoriety) books, he used the term "scalpy" to describe a person's odor. I knew exactly what he meant, the first time...and the second time, and the third time.

Good luck with the edits!

Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, "just" drives me nuts! I am convinced it sneaks into the ms when I'm not look... er, paying attention. I let my characters use it -- just not too often.

Franzen is not the only Famous Writer who gets stuck on an unusual word and uses it repeatedly. Once is enough.

Cathymw said...

My editor starting highlighting overused words, so I'm painfully aware of them.

Walked, looked, and grabbed were the issue in my first book.

In the second book, it was had (I kept saying phrases like a character "had to laugh", rather than just saying "laughed") and glanced (since I was now trying not to use looked).

Thank God for rewrites. :)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I just read (a meaningful use of "just" in this case) Sense and Sensibility on my Kindle, so out of curiosity I worked backwards. No dialogue at all in the final ten pages, then "said," "said," "she continued," "repeated he," no attribution, "said he," "said she," "said Elinor," "said Edward, after a pause".... My overall impression is that life was a lot easier for writers 200 years ago.

Leslie Budewitz said...

In Faithful Place, Tana French often starts a sentence "He said" or "I said," putting the attribution at teh beginning instead of the end. Might be weird if I were reading in print, but it's quite useful in the audio version.

And my overused words list? Look, glance, just, only -- all on it!

Kate Flora said...

One of the Pattersons has a passion for big words. Unwieldy words. Momentum stopping words.

I love it that you take the time with this. I often don't see those repetitions, despite the five drafts,until I read the edited manuscript. But I quickly see it in other's books. In my student's writing.

Once I read a book where the author used the word "hypnagogic." Interesting the first time, when I went to look it up. Irritating the next eight or ten times. It was a two-year-old learning the word "slippery" and delighting in its feel on the tongue.

BTW...I am wedded to my Rodale's. A delicious time waster when the prose is flowing like molasses.

Sandra Parshall said...

I couldn't live without my Rodale's. MY first copy literally fell apart -- the pages separated from the spine, then from each other -- and I had to buy a new one a few years ago.

About Bobbi C. said...

Yeah,what about those hangers, anyway? (Ask the socks). I recently read a Koontz book, and I swear I had to go get the danged dictionary. I have a huge/big/ginormous/grande vocabulary, but had never heard of some of the words he used.

As for "looked"--try using oggled. I like that one. :-) Or "eyeballed." LOL

Kathleen Asay said...

I have the same problem with looked and just and that get the idea. An editor recently came up with a solution for many of them: eliminate the sentence. If it's around dialogue, let the dialogue stand by itself.
Worked for me.