“What’s in a name?” – “Rain and tears are the same,” sing the Aphrodite’s Child in a popular tune of theirs.
Well, during the past year I have been gearing up to wrap up the English translation of my novel, which is already published in my native language. Having studied English simultaneously with my native language since first grade–as my then elementary school’s policy provided–, I decided to take up the translating task myself. If anything, I very well knew it would basically be a re-writing process at best, and wanting to keep the pulse of the story and the characters’ voice as close to the original as possible, I plunged into it.
After many days and nights of painstaking phrase sculpting and word-dueling down the road, I am progress-wise at a fairly satisfying point. And, going through the notes I have accumulated along the way, I reached some conclusions about the editing (and re-writing) procedure when crafting a novel in a language other than its original one.
While working on the translation and thus doing some indispensable research, especially along the wondrous lanes of thesauruses, I soon realized I couldn’t always find a nice grouping together of the synonyms I was looking for at a given point; and having it all neatly in one place is of immense help for future reference. That’s why I decided to at least put down in this post an organized version of a few of my most important notes on the subject, more precisely about some words or expressions I most often try to diversify using thesauruses– something which is obviously harder to do when you’re not working in your native language. I hope many of you may find this tips handy, whether you too are venturing on translating your native language works into English or are writing directly in it.
Being precise when you describe something is fundamental. It is one of the first things creative writing and editing courses point out, as well. You are practically painting a picture at that moment, with your words; and nothing should come between you and the reader on this.
- Identify the words you use too often
And it doesn’t sound as difficult as it truly is. Without realizing it, as our main focus is to get a story out and put it down on paper, we might be falling back on using some specific words or expressions way too often. That’s why when you’re at the editing stage of your work, take an extra read-through session with the main purpose of looking out for these seemingly harmless repetitions.
- ‘Thesaurus’ it away
As I mentioned earlier, there are many categories one can group synonyms under; that’s why I’m only including the following, most usual in my case:
- Don’t just say ‘look’, when you can say:
e.g. glimpse, glance, stare, gaze, glower, glare, eye sth, fix/glue/rivet/fasten one’s gaze on sth – fix sb with a(n angry) stare/gaze, shoot/fire/cast a glance/look, eyes met/locked/darted/flickered/blinked/narrowed, squint, scrunch up (face), steal a glance at
Descriptive adjectives: fathomless/boundless (gaze), arch/incredulous/knowing/fish-eyed (look)
~Remember: ‘the eyes have it’~
- Don’t just say ‘smile’, when you can say:
e.g. simper, beam or grin
Descriptive adjectives: arch/sly/knowing
- Instead of ‘confused’, try:
e.g. befuddled, puzzled, baffled, bewildered, perplexed
- Instead of ‘surprised’, try:
e.g. thunderstruck, dumbfounded, astounded, taken aback, amazed, awestruck, astonished
- Don’t just say ‘worried’ when you can say:
e.g. disconcerted, concerned, perturbed
- Instead of ‘feel’, try:
e.g. have the/a feeling that, sense, be aware of
- Don’t just say ‘laugh’, when you can say:
e.g. chuckle, cackle, titter, giggle, chortle, snigger, guffaw
Expressions for laughter: choke/double up with laughter, crack up, burst out laughing/into laughter, break into laughter, laugh to tears
* Bonus: 3 quick and tricky editing tips
There are, of course, many style guides and handbooks out there (e.g. The Chicago Manual of Style or the Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders), which can help you immensely with your editing. But at the end of the day, you might actually end up putting together your own ‘style’–so long as you stick to it.
- The notorious dialog tags
As it is widely accepted, dialog tags are not to be overused and certainly ‘said’ is the safest choice to go with.
Yet, sometimes using them is quite inevitable in order to convey the right meaning. E.g. when a character answers back in a fast-paced dialogue with more than one participants and thus her/his identity is not clear, you can opt for ‘rejoin’, ‘shoot’ or ‘snap back’ and ‘retort’ as a tag (according to the character’s attitude and intent).
- Capitalization and use of the definite article
This concerns fantasy or science fiction writers, in particular. In case you need to mention e.g. a rank or title, use a capital letter for it only when the corresponding character’s proper name follows as well. For example, ‘the king decided’ vs. ‘King Theseus decided’.
As you can see, the definite article ‘the’ must normally precede e.g. a character’s title, when that character is mentioned only with her/his title but not her/his proper name as well.
- The first chapters’ impact
Again, for those who create whole worlds and universes and venture in the waters of fantasy or science fiction, this last tip can be particularly helpful to have always in mind: especially in the first pages of your work, try not to use many made-up words etc. of yours all at once. Keep the flow smooth, instead. I always opt for this e.g. in an emotionally charged scene, where an overload of made-up words can distract the reader and weaken the impact of the scene.
Creating something out of thin air is magical, but so is the momentum, the emotional vibe of an important scene, too; the one should not be at the detriment of the other.
As a die-hard scholar and now years-long writer, I may be biased, but language is a thing of beauty. Whether you are into writing professionally, as an amateur or simply keeping a personal blog or journal, take the time and give some extra care on the words you use to give life to your thoughts. Believe me, it is worth it.
And finally, don’t forget the most important thing:
Write, write, write. ~
Looking for more writing tips? Check out this post on antiheros and their indispensable role in a story.