Lately I read a collection of letters by the priest, palaeontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, sent to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon during World War I, where he acted as stretcher-bearer on the front lines and won several medals for bravery and service.
The letters were translated from the French by René Hague and published in English as The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier–Priest 1914–1919. They show a side of Teilhard I had not previously seen, having read only some of his books on evolution and theology.
Teilhard’s letters include this passage of writing advice he offered his cousin, who had sent him one of her lectures for comment:
a) Keep an eye on improving the style, not only by avoiding jarring phonetic effects and repetitions of words – but by enriching your vocabulary, by getting more depth into your wording: there are verbs that are now quite colourless (to be, to do, to have), for which as often as not one can find more expressive and vigorous alternatives. But you know that better than I do.
b) Avoid any obscurity in phraseology, ambiguity in the use of demonstrative adjectives and pronouns (this, that, its, etc.).
c) Try to mark out clearly the various steps in your thoughts by means of transitions that don’t simply connect, but, if I may put it so, synthesize – summing up in a single line both what you’ve just said and what you’re passing on to, – showing just how far you’ve reached and what the next step is going to be. This is a much more difficult art to acquire and presupposes, of course, great precision and maturity in the formation of one’s ideas. But it’s essential if the thread of your exposition is not to be lost in a maze of quotations. (Nieuport-Ville, 27 March 1916.)
Obviously these lines were tailored to the particular text Teilhard had in hand, but some of the advice applies broadly.
He cautions against repetition, but the technique is not always to be deplored; there is a great difference between repetition deployed with skill for rhetorical effect and repetition that arises by dint of laziness, haste, or lack of imagination or lexical resources. The former compels; the latter fatigues.
As an editor and proofreader, I see a lot of writing that relies heavily on hackneyed phrases and humdrum words, and which may be improved considerably by a wider vocabulary put to discriminating use.*
We all have crutch words and constructions that we apply too often and too easily when we’re building paragraphs. Whether they’re in general use or uniquely ours, most of the time we’re not even aware of our dependence on them, and it takes another pair of eyes (a helpful reader’s or a good editor’s) to point it out.
If you must dip into a thesaurus for synonyms, choose words you already know well and are confident will achieve the desired semantic and stylistic effects, or you may muddle your meaning. Synonyms are by and large near-synonyms, so this kind of substitution should be measured and informed: never casual, mechanical, or speculative.
This is just one reason reading widely, avidly and attentively so benefits your writing: the more genres to which you expose yourself, the more words and styles arc into your orbit and gradually become familiar enough to trust to personal use. Then you will have your “expressive and vigorous alternatives”.
* You could make the case that hackneyed phrase is itself a hackneyed phrase, a victim of its own success. Ditto victim of its own success.