By Jeremy Edwards (Guest Blogger)
Picture me at my desk, writing my latest erotica piece. I draft, I revise, I revise, I revise, and I revise.
Then, at the point where I feel like I ought to be just about finished, I face up to a reality that I recognized long ago: despite my extensive vocabulary and active dedication to keeping the text fresh, my story is sure to contain overused words. Yes, even though I try to keep an eye on this throughout the writing/revising process, I’ve learned that until I specifically scour the manuscript for words I’ve used once (or thrice) too often within the piece, class must not be dismissed. Because, inevitably, something that was the mot juste on page 2 also ended up being the mot juste on page 4, and perhaps again on page 5. It may indeed be the best word each time; but I have to analyze whether its use on three separate occasions detracts from its impact, or from the gracefulness of the story—and, if so, whether there’s anything I can do about it.
A few years ago, my software-maven wife pointed me toward a free program called Simple Concordance [http://www.textworld.eu/scp/index.html]. And when it’s time to play the “find the overused words” game with a given story, I use this tool to help light the way, by generating a list of all the words in the piece in decreasing frequency order. At the top will be the, which naturally I’ve used countless times (though the program will, in fact, have counted them). At the bottom will be all the words I’ve used only one time apiece.
This list is invaluable. But Simple Concordance can’t do my complex thinking for me. And so I spend hours using the list to direct my attention to words that may call out for replacement on the grounds of overuse. Obviously, it’s not as simple as how many times a word has been used; it depends on what the word is, how it’s used (in terms of meaning and also sentence structure), where it’s used (how close to a previous and/or subsequent appearance), and whether there are any acceptable (if not necessarily perfect) substitutes. And most of these judgments are very subjective.
Ignoring workhorse words like a and she (but not as: I may want to change one of the as’s to a while or a when), I scan the list for significant words with repeat incidences. Sometimes as few as two occurrences will bear investigating in the manuscript (for one thing, to make sure they’re not a mere sentence away from each other, where this isn’t desired). Several instances of a concrete word like office won’t raise my eyebrows if the story is, for example, set in an office (though even here it might be worth considering alternatives like room or executive suite). But I usually feel that a powerful intangible like ambivalence should, ideally, not appear more than once in a short story—unless I’m deliberately drawing attention to the concept’s repetition, as in “She sensed my ambivalence ... Now it was no longer ambivalence, but confusion ... This time she was the ambivalent one.” Speaking of which, the concordance program thinks “ambivalence” and “ambivalent” are two completely different words; but I know better, and I concoct my manual-search strategies so as to account for related forms. Thus I often search on abbreviated letter strings to catch related words: “imag” to catch image, imagine, and imagination.
Yeah, it seems I’m inclined to have my characters imagine a lot. But I’ve been through this routine enough times that I know where to turn when I’ve let my imagination run too wild: my folks can envision or visualize for a change. As that example illustrates, this process has taught me to pay more attention to the second tier of my vocabulary, if you will—the words I don’t turn to often enough when drafting prose because, for each of them, there’s an overexposed synonym that has preferred status in my vernacular. In working to bring second-tier words to the fore, I’m breaking up some of those near monopolies!
Of course, it’s better to give a prima donna another encore than send in a shaky understudy of a word. In erotica, for instance, anatomical terms present a special challenge, as I am by no means the first to observe. I try to remain aware of my anatomical options, but tone and aesthetics will sometimes call for reusing a term rather than sounding a false note with a synonym that doesn’t have the right feel.
I find the overused-word assessment and solution routine quite tedious—to be honest, I dread this chore. But though it’s by far my least favorite part of the story-crafting process, it is by no means a thankless task. With every story, I’m aware of the rewards I’m reaping for my drudgery, as I see the vocabulary becoming richer and the prose enjoying a greater variety of shapes and textures. And then there are those satisfying moments when I realize that instead of substituting one word for another, I can improve a sentence simply by removing the overused word. That dog-eared word wasn’t adding anything to begin with, and the sentence is tighter, and better, without it!
Sometimes the best part of writing is erasing.
[The Simple Concordance screenshot was generated from the final version of my story “Ménage à Denim,” which appears in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 9. In order to fit more of the “interesting” words in the picture, I’ve truncated the top few lines, where you’d find the and friends.]
Click here to expand. Use the "Back" button to return to the blog.
BIO: Jeremy Edwards is the author of the eroto-comedic novel Rock My Socks Off and the forthcoming erotic-story collection Spark My Moment (both published by Xcite Books). His work has appeared in over forty anthologies. Drop in on him unannounced (and thereby catch him in his underwear) at www.jeremyedwardserotica.com .