The Law Of Inverse Familiarity – A Rule Of Thumb All Writers Should Remember

10 Mar

I’ve been working on the second draft of the novel I’m currently writing (The Outbreak), and as part of this, I’ve been sorting out one of the issues my girlfriend (in her role as unofficial editor) pointed out when she read over the first draft. This is my habit, when writing initial drafts, of over-using certain words and phrases. This is particularly true of the action sequences where all the infected roar, all the main characters scream and all the weapons blows land with a thud. I know when I’m writing the first draft that I’ll need to go back and change all these things, but it helps me get down the general framework for the story if I ignore them at the time.

Now I’ve been going back over it again, I’ve been working on varying the language so that no words or phrases leap out at the reader as being over-used, and this is where the law of inverse familiarity comes in. So what is this law? Well, it’s a nice little rule of thumb which is well worth remembering when you’re writing and it states that the less familiar a word is to a reader, the less often you can use it without the repetition leaping out at them.

For example, a reader will barely notice if you used the word ‘and’ or ‘the’ several times in the same paragraph, but if you used the word ‘defenestration’ or ‘exsanguination’ to describe how a character dies more than once in the same book, it will stand out as being odd (unless, of course, this is a specific characteristic you have for how someone kills others). This is because they’re unfamiliar words to most people and so stick in the reader’s mind. Between these two extremes, you might have words like ‘decapitation’, which is more familiar, but which you’d still need to used sparingly, or ‘glanced’, which you would probably get away with using once every page or two without it standing out too much, but not every second sentence (as I have a tendency to do in early drafts).

Identifying when words are being used too frequently can be difficult, especially if you are fully-immersed within your writing. This is because the words will become more familiar to you each time you read them, and so they’ll stand out less and less as being over-used. This is why it’s always useful to have someone else read over your work as they will come to the work with fresh eyes, and so they will be able to spot such issues much more easily than you can. However, if you are doing this yourself, one of the best approaches is to print out your work, then pick a word which you think you might have used to often, and using a highlighter pen, carefully mark each and every instance of its use. Suddenly, the frequency of usage will leap off the page at you as it you’d never read the piece before, and in almost all cases, you’ll find you used it much more often than you thought it would have been.

Once you’re aware of when you’ve over-used a word, it is quick and easy to sort it out. This is simply a matter of going carefully through your text and changing the word, either to another with a similar meaning, or by restructuring the sentence to avoid having to use it in the first place. Of course, you don’t have to replace every usage of a particular word, just enough to ensure that its usage fits more closely with the law of inverse familiarity.

So this is what I’ve spent the last week doing, re-reading my latest draft, wondering whether I can use the word bravado on three different occasions, realising that the characters are running their fingers through their hair way too often when they speak, and that I’ve been starting too many sentences with the word ‘While’. It takes time and careful reading, but the result is a much better end product so it’s well worth putting in the effort.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

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