Consider the following, all of which I found in a major newspaper. What’s the common problem?
• “In a story that could be straight out of a Flannery O’Connor short story…”
• “Microsoft… is able to use its money to put on a great show at the Consumer Electronics Show…”
• “One thing Mr. Rosenbluth won’t relinquish is his annual black-tie cattle drive (so named for the black-tie-and-cowboy-boots dinner at the end of the event).”
• “The 10-day program visits Cambridge, England, and Russia, retracing the steps of the Cambridge Spies, a group of Soviet spies who attended Cambridge University.”
You’re right. Each one repeats a word in a manner that’s awkward and clunky.
How could these passages have been written instead? Some possibilities: “In a tale”; “put on a great event”; “formal-dress-and-cowboy-boots dinner”; “a group of Soviet agents.”
H.W. Fowler (1858-1933), a legendary language expert, cautioned against what he called – not approvingly – “elegant variation.” He scolded writers who strain for a different word just to avoid repetition. A classic example: following “He said” with “He stated,” “He averred,” and so on.
Fowler had a point, but he seems to have overlooked the fact that variation can be a good thing. The repetitions in the above examples are obvious, heavy-handed, and… inelegant. When we substitute appropriate synonyms, the passages are stylistically superior.
To find the right synonym, keep a thesaurus handy. But remember that synonyms are not interchangeable. A writer must understand the nuances of each word.
Some thesauri are available free online. But for decades, I’ve relied on The New American Roget’s College Thesaurus in Dictionary Form. I give this volume so much use that every few years I have to replace my worn-out copy.[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]