On Writing: Look!

Jack looked across at her with a pensive look on his face.
‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ he said.
‘It looked like a ghost,’ she replied, then looking past him she cried, ‘Look out!’

I was about to write that the above is a huge exaggeration of my long-time love affair with the utility of the word ‘look’ but, having spent some time editing The Parasite, I’m not so sure it is. This was one tendency of mine that my editor Peter Lavery picked up on, and it’s one that displays the differences between the three vocabularies. You have your reading, writing and speaking vocabularies which, respectively, are in descending order of size. There were of course many words other than ‘look’ I could have used. All of them were sitting there in my reading vocabulary, but I just wasn’t using them.

It seemed to come as a revelation to me that someone might ‘peer, gaze, glance, stare or peek’ at something, or that they might ‘watch, study, observe or regard’ something, or that there were alternatives to ‘look like’ or ‘looked like’. I could go on and on but any of you reading this in the hope of picking up a tip or two are all probably using Word and have access to a thesaurus. Highlight ‘look’ and take a look at scrutinize the many alternative words that are available.

But of course that is not enough. Words like this are those we are often blind to, so we need to either pore over our work anew, or have someone else take a look at it examine it. Our words need to be closely inspected, contemplated and studied. ‘Look’ is useful, but does it have the nuance of meaning of the alternatives? Does it have the gravitas of ‘regard’, the brevity of ‘glance’, the myopia of ‘peer’ or the analytical inference of ‘study’?

Note: Generally you don’t have your character ‘peer’ at the one he’s deeply in love with, or ‘gaze’ at the plans to the bank vault he’s about to raid, and he doesn’t ‘examine’ the view … unless of course you’re trying to twist and tweak something, or maybe work in some character-building. The half-blind lover might peer. The inept bank robber might gaze (probably with bafflement) at those vault plans. And the cold military commander might examine the view.

Here’s a suggestion: take a paragraph of your work and go through it word by word checking it against your thesaurus. I bet you will find at least one word you would like to change – one word that adds meaning by simple replacement.

Jack gazed across at her, his expression pensive.
‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ he said.
‘It seemed like a ghost,’ she replied, then glancing past him she cried, ‘Watch out!’

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