Writing as Synonymization

by F.

Two conceptual tricks come to mind that I find extremely useful when writing anything, from a letter pitching a client to a diary entry to a paid piece of work: “synonymization” and “walking through concept space.”

Synonymization is simply coming up with semantically equivalent words, phrases, clauses, or sentences. But the synonymization must have a direction, and that direction must be toward more clarity. (It is easy to make something less clear using the same process. This is what we lawyers do.) Along with clarity, you can also synonymize toward an ideal style and tone (say, when trying to copy the style of The Economist.)

This is also how you purge your work of cliches: you “synonymize” the cliched phrase. Ask yourself, “In other words___________?” When I prompt myself, I like to “think in blanks,” because it find that my mind wants to fill the space. If I just ask a rhetorical question, I find I’m stymied by possibilities: “What am I trying to say?” is recipe for block (for me.)

Walking through Concept Space means moving up and down the “ladder of abstraction, and moving to different conceptual frames. For instance, “an American city”-“a western US city”-“a Californian city”-“a southern Californian city”-“the location of the movie industry” forms a non-branching hierarchy, with the terms on the left of it more abstract than those on the right. But the meaning might be the same: Los Angeles. Or one could say “Two western powers went to war”-“two Eurpopean countries went to war”-“Germany went to war against Poland”-“Germany invaded Poland.” The leftmost phrase is more abstract than the rightmost phrase.

Different conceptual frames are things like part-whole relationships (mereological relationships), folk physics frames like “agent-action” or “cause-effect” or “force-counterforce.” There are a suprisingly small number of these frames. When I get stuck for ideas, I pull out a deck of flashcards (virtual, on my Mac) that has most of the big ones. I randomly go through the deck for ideas, trying to feel whether this particular frame is better for my content, or that one is.