Elegant Variation

Recently, Joni has taught me a new (to me) term for an old sin: the elegant variation. Coined by Henry Watson Fowler in 1926, the phrase refers to the tendency to dude up what ought to be a simple, straight-forward bit of prose with overly-affected language and syntax.

My favorite definition is comes from the blog The Elegant Variation:

The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) 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."

I confess, I've fought this tendency for years, not out of any conscious desire to write pretentiously, but because my mind tends to loop its convoluted way around the page. I've noticed over the years that I spend a lot of my revision time ferreting out flourishes and replacing them with straight lines. I still get creative with language whenever I feel it's the best way to get across my story (and because a writer has to get her kicks somewhere), but when it starts getting in the way, it's time to start deleting.

So thanks, Joni, for giving the sin I've so long called "Beautiful Writing to Absolutely No Effect" a proper (and predictably less convoluted) handle. And does anyone else out there admit to having EV (not ED, mind you) moments?


Joni Rodgers said…
That's interesting. I never knew where the term came from. I learned it from the guy who edited my first novel. Not only did he nail me for it, he laughed out loud a few times. He pruned an 800 pg mess to a 360 pg manuscript by cropping the last two chapters and a whooooooole lotta EV.
boxing said…
The long-suffering editor who bought my first novel taught me "non sequitir," which was how she marked many of my characters' responses. (For the uninitiated, it's when A doesn't flow logically to B, for example when one character screams, "Ack! Tornado coming this way" and his companion grouses about the toilet seat being left up the night before.)

It's a good, useful term in editing. Yet I still cringe to thing of that manuscript, which came back absolutely riddled with corrections on nearly every page.

Thank goodness! I learned so much from that experience. Way more than another term to sling around critique group.
Elen Grey said…
I loved the images you used to illustrate this post. Perfect EV. I cannot tell a lie. Yes, I am guilty.
Thanks, Elen. I suspect that all word lovers are guilty from time to time! A wise agent once told me, you want your writing not to sound like Writing. :)

Happy weekend!
Donna Maloy said…
Guilty as charged. I think my problem is that I have ingested and absorbed too many English novels written in the 19th century -- when vocabulary wasn't a dirty word. I have a tendency to burp variations (elegant or otherwise) without even realizing it.

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