Thursday, November 03, 2005

Beware The Elegant Variation

A fellow Sister-in-Crime drew my attention to a blog by Mark Sarvas ( Sarvas is a novelist and screenwriter who lives in L.A. His blog is called The Elegant Variation and the home page introduction is worth reprinting.

Sarvas writes: "The Elegant Variation is Fowler’s . . . term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

In my 10/14 blog (My Reference Shelf), I warned against dependence on a thesaurus. I agree with Sarvas that unrestrained or liberal use of one is both dangerous and the hallmark of an inexperienced writer.

The Fowler to whom Sarvas refers is H.W. Fowler (1858-1933), the author of "The King's English." Elegant Variation is the subtitle of a Fowler chapter entitled "Airs and Graces."

Fowler also warns against what he calls pronominal variation, in which a writer avoids using "a noun or its obvious pronoun substitute." He says: "The use of pronouns is itself a form of variation, designed to avoid ungainly repetition; and we are only going one step further when, instead of either the original noun or the pronoun, we use some new equivalent. 'Mr. Gladstone', for instance, having already become 'he,' presently appears as 'that statesman'. Variation of this kind is often necessary in practice; so often, that it should never be admitted except when it is necessary."

One of my critique partners called me on a pronominal variation just this week. And here I thought "bank secretary" was a nice change of pace from endless repetitions of "Claudia" or "she." (Thanks, Kirsten!)

Beware the elegant variation.


Robin D Owens said...

Yes, you try to be fresh, and the critique buddies are there to give you the withering stare when you fail...I've found saying "Well, that didn't work" and rapidly shuffling the offending page away is best.


Maya said...

Thanks for a laugh, Robin. That's EXACTLY what I did.