Read my short story. There’s something terribly wrong with the writing. Can you see what it is? I’ve made a mistake that’s common to people who love words.
The car alarm went off at 6am. Father ran outside, still wearing his pyjamas. He couldn’t get into the car. There was chewing gum in the lock.
Mother heard the alarm blaring. She dashed outside, dressed in her pyjamas.
“Enter the vehicle,” she said.
“I can’t insert the key, look,” he replied, pointing at the hardened confectionary in the lock.
“See, use the key to scrape the sticky goo away,” she exclaimed, indicating with her finger the pink sweetness in the lock.
Daughter heard the roar of the vehicle alarm. She galloped to the exterior of the property. She wore sky blue pyjamas.
“What’s going on?” She cried, gesturing towards the horseless carriage.
“We can’t penetrate our transportation,” roared Father.
“What do we do?” Yelled Mother.
“Stop that noise,” boomed the man next door. He sprinted to the car, still robed in his pyjamas.
Above their heads the azure heavens did not comment.
Did you spot my rookie error? Like many writers I tried too hard to avoid repetition. I didn’t want to bore my readers by repeating the same words too often.
Instead of repeating said, I used replied, exclaimed, cried, yelled, roared, boomed and comment. For pointing I used gesturing and indicating. I chose robed, wore and dressed rather than risk repetition of wearing.
And as for how I avoided repeating car, blue, sky and chewing gum. It’s not exactly Shakespeare is it?
If you’ve been told that your writing is “flowery” or “overwritten” it’s probably because you’ve tried too hard to avoid repeating words.
We don’t want our readers to know that they’re reading. Ideally, writing should be a delivery system for ideas and imagery. When prose writers vary vocabulary too much it’s very distracting to readers. I think of it as writerly acrobatics.
So how do we find the balance between variety and repetition?
Partly, we need to learn which words can be repeated without jarring the reader. Plain, simple words like said draw less attention to themselves than fancy words like arcing. (I once read a novel where the author used arcing every time a character threw something. It probably happened less than 10 times but it really got on my nerves.)
I’d say, use plain words freely as if they were rice, flour or potatoes. Treat fancy words as if they were sugary treats. Or to use an ornithological image, 100 finches = 10 ostriches.
Finding the balance between repetition and variety is also a matter of understanding the subtle differences of meaning attached to words.
It’s ok to use yell, cry, boom and shout on one page, but there must be a good reason for it. Variation should serve communication and meaning. It shouldn’t be there for its own sake. That, I think, is one of the secrets to avoiding flowery writing.