USUALLY (BUT NOT ALWAYS) THE SIMPLER THE WORD a writer uses to describe something, the better. Tight writing is also more effective if the author chooses shorter words over those with more syllables, but again, this is not always the case. Variety tops both of these rules. As an editor, I find few things more irritating than seeing a paragraph containing the same verb used over and over, or other types of repetition on a page. A simpler noun or explanation is also clearer, especially when words are archaic or unusual. If readers struggle through our prose or stop reading in order to look up a term, we lose flow. Note the example below:
“Remnant skitterings or an intentional aleuromancy, we knew not which, yet the detail of the leavings seemed curious with intention, making us suspect the latter.”
If you’re wondering what all this is about, two demon hunters are considering strange footprints left in flour dusting the floor of a mill. Aleuromancy is about divination using flour. I looked it up. Water and flour are mixed in a bowl, the contents dumped, and then the patterns are read. In ancient times, fortunes were also placed inside baked balls, much like today's fortune cookies. Interesting, no? But see how far we’ve strayed from the plot? Who even remembers what it was about? If you must use archaic words, find a way to explain them in a subtle way, without being overly expositive.
Some word combinations don’t work because the meanings fight with each other (in this case, the adverbs battle the verbs). Consider:
In each of these examples, the adverbs aren’t needed; they add nothing to the prose. Yowled might be a better word to describe wailed melodiously (plus, it’s one word - not two), laughed bitterly is a better choice than laughed moodily, and imperceptibly and invisibly contradict the verb (why even mention them at all?) As for he strode aimlessly, that’s almost funny. I picture some poor drunk bumping into walls.They wailed melodiously…He laughed moodily…She shivered imperceptibly…He quailed invisibly…He strode aimlessly…
When I edit my own work, I spend a lot of time rearranging sentences and changing the word order. For me, the prose is always stronger if I can end a sentence on a strong verb or noun (or sometimes, the occasional adverb). Here’s an example of a piece of dialogue I adjusted today. The first is not as strong as the second:
Version One:“I hate you,” she said angrily.He pushed her down the companionway’s stairs. “Do you?” he asked. “Well, you know the old saying about love and hate. They’re related.”Version Two:“I hate you!”“Do you?” He shoved her down the stairs to their cabin. “Well, you know what they say about love and hate. They’re primos, first cousins.”
Even though they take about the same amount of white space on the page, Version Two is better because it’s tighter, faster, and more colourful. I’ve dropped the dialogue tags (not needed), and followed the first line of dialogue with another line to speed the flow. I added more directional detail by mentioning where they were going – their cabin (painting a stronger picture for the reader) but dropped 'companionway' as stairs is the simpler word and means the same thing. I added some flavour with primos, a Spanish word meaning ‘first cousin’, which I explain (instead of falling back on the old cliché). Every sentence ends vividly with ‘you’, ‘cabin’, ‘hate’ and ‘cousins’ – all strong pronouns or nouns.