Elegant Variation

By Michael

I learned about “elegant variation” from my high school English teacher, but even she taught about it with a slightly-skeptical smile. It’s a rule that many writers feel bound to follow when they don’t need to.

According to this so-called rule, a writer should never use the same word twice in a paragraph. Newscasters follow “elegant variation” when they say, “The Dow-Jones Industrial Average rose more than 300 points yesterday. It was the blue-chip indicator‘s fourth straight gain.” Or “China’s Sichuan province experienced another earthquake yesterday afternoon, the second in three months. The temblor measured 6.1 on the Richter scale.”

Admittedly, a news story might sound a bit childish if it said, “The Dow-Jones gained 300 points yesterday. It was the fourth straight gain for the Dow-Jones.” Too much repetition reads like a toddler’s picture book.

But more important than not repeating a word is not using the wrong word. I experienced several earthquakes when I lived in California, and not once did I hear anybody say, “Did you feel that temblor last night?” I remember one local radio newscaster who spent about twenty minutes saying basically, “We had a big earthquake this morning, and we don’t know anything else about it, but I have to keep talking about it because this is an all-news station and it’s our top story.” But I don’t think he ever used the word “temblor.” In fact, I’ve never heard that word at all, except from radio announcers trying to avoid saying “earthquake”.

Instead of asking “What other word can I use the next time?”, we should be asking, “What better word can I add the next time?”. In my first example, using the term “blue-chip indicator” in parallel to “Dow-Jones Industrial Average” defines the Dow-Jones Industrial Average as a performance indicator for blue-chip stocks. It adds to the meaning of the sentence, instead of simply providing variation.

Another problem with elegant variation is that it can push your writing out of the readability zone. If you’re trying to be elegant, you’re probably trying to be formal. If you’re trying to be formal, you’re probably going to use big words that fewer readers understand (porcine instead of piggish). If you’re straining to find a synonym for the right word, you may end up doing worse than finding the wrong word. You may end up with finding a word that even you don’t understand.

Repetition is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes once you find a good thing, the best course is to stick with it. My previous paragraph was stronger because of its repetition. Repetition emphasizes parallelism, which makes sentences and paragraphs more understandable.

Elegance is not necessarily a good thing. When the term “elegant variation” was coined by Henry Watson Fowler in the 1920s, it implied precious writing – overly dainty and falsely sophisticated.

When I was a magazine writer, I was often faced with the desire to find a more elegant word. “The Sharchops dwell in the mountains of Bhutan… The Sharchops reside… The Sharchops are situated near… The Sharchops homeland is nestled within…” I decided that if I couldn’t find a better way to say, “The Sharchops live in eastern Bhutan,” I could always say, “The Sharchops live in eastern Bhutan.”

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17 Responses to “Elegant Variation”

  • AnotherGuy

    This is actually something that has plagued me for a very long time. I find myself getting annoyed whenever I use a word more than once within a few sentences. Even so such small words as… well… small. As you said, it seems too childish to leave it like it is.

    Others have told me not to worry about it so much, and I’m getting better. Hopefully I’ll know my limit when it comes to these sorts of things.

    Thanks!

  • Tom Connolly

    Puzzled by your hyphenating an adjective ending in ly (first sentence). I thought that was incorrect. Am I wrong?

  • Blogging Millionaire

    I am really trying to take your tips to heart but I just have a hard time remembering every single one of them. I am thinking about just working on one of your tips for a whole week so maybe I will not forget it in the weeks to come.

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Tom, I am not sure, check this post:

    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/compound-modifiers/

  • Joshua Francis

    Exciting post about an exciting topic. I was actually just telling a friend how excited I am about elegant writing… how exciting!

    Seriously, excellent. I am a firm believer in using simple language.
    I always loved Hemingway’s “He went to the tree. The tree was there.” kind of writing…

  • Ali

    One of the most annoying mistakes I see in beginners’ fiction writing is people trying to vary “he said”/”she said” for more and more convoluted alternatives … “he shouted”, “he expounded”, “he expostulated”.

    The truth is, readers don’t even notice “he said” or “she said” — it’s like wallpaper. They DO notice contrived methods of “elegant variation”.

    (I never knew it was called “elegant variation” before — I can finally stop referring to it as “not using the same word twice in a sentence”…)

  • Bobby Ozuna

    I never heard the term “elegant variation” when I was in school, but then again, I hardly ever listened to my English teachers. It’s ironic that today–some 15 years after graduation–I can remember all the rules they tried to beat into me…that I hardly paid any attention to when I was supposed to be learning.

    I do however understand the importance of being non-repetitive with relation to your topic within a particular paragraph. I found [that] when you choose to emphasize a particular word, it is okay to repeat it–as if you are subconsciously trying to drill the word into the readers head–then later change it up, using a different word in its place, which will cause the reader to then remember your original phrase or word choice.

    Great tip and great blog!!!

  • Kitt

    I have an aversion to the word ‘said’. Sometimes it is the best word to use if there is no need to show any sort of emotional overtone to what is being stated. I like to find simple variations of the word ‘said’ to shade the dialog in my stories (when necessary).

    “Please, don’t hurt me again!” she said. This is too inert for me.

    I would much rather write this — “Please, don’t hurt me again!” she whimpered.

    Instead of a more wordy and convoluted — “Please, don’t hurt me again!” she said in a wavery voice.

    Or — With a catch in her voice, she said, “Please, don’t hurt me again!”

    If I have to hunt mentally for more than two seconds for the utterance word with the impact I’m looking for (and I don’t permit myself to use a thesaurus in these situations) I go with ‘said’ and let a beta reader tell me if there’s an impact mismatch that needs to be fixed.

    I find I am most happy when I can have the speakers implied by the dialog and the action instead of having to use utterance words at all. I guess I’m trying to tread a balance between my antipathy toward the word ‘said’ and the corresponding danger of becoming needlessly ‘elegant’.

  • annie

    It’s a good point.

  • Balkan File

    Interesting post. It’s good to know the correct term for not repeating the same word!

    I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog archives – it’s about time I brushed up on my writing skills.

  • Michael

    Tom, I think you’re correct about not hyphenating after ‘ly’. The Exceptions section of the post Daniel referred to says as much. Please accept my heartily proffered apologies; that is, sorry about that.

  • aravah

    Here’s a useful article on the use of dialogue tags, and the dangers of searching for alternatives to ‘said’.

  • cmdweb

    I must admit to having a bit of a ‘thing’ about this. I wasn’t taught it at school, it’s more of a personal preference. I think that repetiton of words reduces the overall readability and the readers resulting level of interest. Writing that uses a wider vocabulary always comes across as more professional to me.
    Being involved in technical writing, this also creates conflict where you may be forced to use the same nomenclature or descriptive word over and over again; using a new word could confuse the user.

  • Michael

    When creative dialog tags are overused, they become “Tom Swifties.”
    – “Turn down the heat,” he said warmly.
    – “Close the shutters,” she said blindly.
    – “Turn on the light,” he said brightly.

  • Michael

    Repetition of words within a sentence or paragraph is a bad idea when they refer to different things. For example: “The teacher gave the teacher a book” – they’re two different people, so using the same word for both is confusing.

  • Bruno

    Repetition of words is not a “mistake” in scientific literature. Clarity is always to be sought when writing a technical paper, with elegant variation being an extra luxury.

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