When writers are drafting a work, they often use the first word that comes to mind to describe a reaction, situation, person’s appearance, and so forth. This is natural and is actually helpful for your creative flow, for when drafting, you should never stop writing just to to look up more fitting words.
Unfortunately, the first word that usually comes to mind is often the easiest and most overused word. Thus, in first drafts, a lot of overused phrases and worn-out, inexact words show up.
Why is this a problem? Familiar, common words and phrases don’t strike the reader as anything to pay attention to, and so they don’t paint a picture. And in writing, your word usage should aim to create a clear, specific image for your reader to hang the scene on. A word should be, as one writer put it, “as precise as a telephone number.”
Take a look at this passage.
Under the watchful eye of Edric’s sorcerer, all outside magic was forbidden. But Winifred knew she must seek out the witch who lived alone in a hut at the edge of the dark forest. To get to the witch, she had to follow the old deer trail that led to the forbidden brook. Then she must follow the babbling brook through the dark forest until she reached the clearing. The witch’s hut had withstood time there, and the witch herself was as old as Methuselah.
Personally, I don’t think that this is very descriptive. I used some colorless words, such as dark and clearing. Some overused phrases, such as watchful eye and babbling brook, show up. And my description of the witch’s age isn’t that inspired.
In a draft, of course, I’d want to leave all of this alone and just write. But when I come to the editing stage, I’d want to change this description.
Let’s see what I can do with that paragraph.
Under the tyrannical scrutiny of Edric’s sorcerer, all unapproved magic was forbidden. But Winifred knew that she must seek the help of the witch who lived in exile with only her owls and rabbits in a crumbling hut at the edge of the gloomy forest.
The way to the witch lay along the almost-overgrown deer trail made in the last age, which then led down to the brook. Edric had long forbidden his subjects to cross the brook, which bordered his rival Lyall’s lands. Winifred would then follow this brook, with its white eddies breaking against limestone outcroppings, through the twilight woods until she reached the fire-razed clearing.
The witch’s hut had occupied that clearing since the last age, since even Winifred’s grandmother was a child. And the witch herself had been born before even the memory of magic.
This is better and more descriptive. The overused phrases have been replaced with specific descriptions, and I’ve described the witch’s age in a way that lets the reader know that she’s ready for Medicare.
Again, invention in the drafting stage should be left to the plot. But in the editing stage, writers should always seek to use their imaginations to choose the clearest, most precise words possible. However, just because you have a thesaurus doesn’t mean you should overuse it – and in my next article, I’ll discuss just that kind of abuse of the thesaurus.