On reusing words

One of the rules I was taught for writing, but never really respected, was not to reuse words: if you have to use it a second time, use a synonym. Eventually I realized what the real rule is. It’s okay to use the same word for the same thing. What is bad is to use the same word for a different thing. Even if the word would be a good fit for that second thing, if it’s already in use you should choose another, because otherwise readers will conflate the two.

For instance, if you’re writing about the construction industry, you might as well keep on calling it “construction”; if you try introducing synonyms readers will be wondering whether (say) “builders” is the same thing or whether you mean to draw a distinction. But if you write of a house as being “solid” (meaning solidly built; strong; sound), and in the same paragraph you write of ice as being solid (meaning not a liquid), you’re doing something that gets readers’ neurons to fire in an undesirable way. They won’t necessarily misunderstand, but choosing a word other than “solid” either for the ice or for the house will still be gentler on them. In this case there are plenty of good alternatives for the house, and few if any for the ice, so it would be time to go back and edit the description of the house.

Now, the above assumes that you’re writing to convey information. If you’re writing to distract or deceive, you’re playing on the same field, but your goals are different, so you might want to do the exact opposite of what is recommended above. But I’ll leave specific recommendations to people with more experience in that sort of thing.