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.”