Thursday, May 28, 2015

Grammar Basics: What Every Writer Should Know

Like every other vocation, writing comes with a plethora of technical terms—everything from past perfect continuous tense to non-defining relative clauses. Unlike many other vocations, however, writing is a task that can be performed with next to no knowledge of its technical aspects. In other words, you don’t need to know what a grammatical article is in order to use one correctly. Most people do this instinctually.

That’s not to say that a knowledge of the technical aspects of writing isn’t useful and important. Generally speaking, the more thorough a person’s knowledge of grammar, punctuation, and all of the technical details of writing, the more precise, legible, and skilled their writing will be. But such detailed expertise is not necessary to write a good story. That’s why I usually refrain from using technical writing terms in my blog posts: it’s not so important that you know what a present participle or a gerund is, it’s just important that you know how to use verbs that end in –ing.

But there is a minimum level of knowledge that every writer should have if they want to write for a living. You don’t need to be able to diagram a sentence, but most editors will expect you to know at least the following terms and what they mean:

Basic Sentence Structure: Subject, Verb, and Direct Object

I’ve gone over the basics of what makes up a sentence before: a subject, a verb, and (often) a direct object. Every writer should know what each of those terms means and be able to identify them in a sentence.

The subject of the sentence is the thing that is performing an action.
The verb is the action that is being performed.
The direct object is the thing that is being acted upon—the thing that the verb is affecting.

        Koharu         sipped          her sake.
        Subject           Verb        Direct Object

Remember that not all verbs require a direct object.

       Haruto     slept.
       Subject     Verb      (no direct object needed)

If a sentence does not have that central subject and verb, then it (usually) isn’t a sentence—it’s a sentence fragment.

Adjectives

An adjective is a word that modifies a noun, like so:

     Koharu was an intelligent woman.

Adjectives can be colors (the blue car), qualities (the adorable baby), materials (a wooden sword), nationalities (a Japanese car), ages (the seven-year-old girl), and more. The limiting factor is that they will always describe a noun.

Adverbs

Adverbs (the use of which is discussed here) are words that modify pretty much everything but nouns. They can modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, phrases, and even entire sentences. They usually end in –ly, but not always.

     Modifying a verb: Haruto spoke quickly.
                                   Koharu visited yesterday.    
     Modifying an adjective: Haruto thinks that he is extremely clever.
                                            Your overly worried sister doesn’t think so.
     Modifying an adverb: Haruto spoke very quickly.
     Modifying a phrase: Koharu drove us nearly the whole way. (Modifies the phrase “the whole way.”)
     Modifying a sentence: Eventually, we all decided to go together.

Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

A preposition is a word that describes the location, direction, time, or possessive quality of a noun or action. Some examples:

     Location: Your coat is in the closet.
     Direction: Haruto drove to the store.
     Time: We’ll eat after the lecture.
     Possession: We’re going to meet the President of Japan!

A prepositional phrase is simply a preposition and the words it is linking to the rest of the sentence.

     My book was on the shelf.
     The creatures came from outer space.
     I’ll get this done before I clock out.
     The Queen of England won’t be there, sadly.

Tense and Perspective

You should know which tense and which form of perspective your story employs and be generally familiar with the most common tenses and perspectives. You can find a handy rundown of tense and perspective here.

Pronouns

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun or noun phrase. Examples include I, you, she, this that, these, who, what, whose, mine, his, and so many more. There are a good ten or so categories of pronouns, which I don’t expect everyone to learn—just know what a pronoun is and the basics of how to identify them.



Now, again: I’m not saying that you would not be well-served in studying your grammar and punctuation—all the elements of writing, really—to a greater depth than what I’ve covered here. But at the very least, every writer should know the terms above and how to identify the parts of speech that they refer to. Instinct and experience can make up for a lack of detailed knowledge, but they can’t make up for the basics.

Remember what Uncle Iroh taught us all: learn the basics, as they are your greatest ally.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Mismatched Lists, Part Two

This is part two of our discussion on mistakes that crop up when authors write lists; you can find part one here. In part one, we discussed mismatched lists of nouns; today, we’ll discuss lists of actions. For instance:

     Before he could go out for the evening, Jeremy had some chores to get done, like walking the dog, cleaning out the car, and run to the store for snacks.

     Do you realize how much effort I put into this? I had to research all of the information myself, tracked down the original designers, and convinced them to help me put together a matching setup.

Can you see the problem with those lists? The items in these lists don’t all match. Let’s play a game of “one of these things is not like the others”:

     walking the dog
     cleaning out the car
     run to the store for snacks



The first two items in the list begin with “-ing” verbs (we’ve discussed those several times before), but the final item in the list does not (it begins with an imperative verb, if you’re curious). That’s a problem—when you list actions like this, the format of each action needs to match the others. Partly, we do this because symmetry looks and sounds better. But it’s often more than that.

The formatting of each action needs to match up with the portion of the sentence that introduces the list. You should be able to remove all of the actions in the list but one (any one) and still have the sentence make sense. Let’s look at the second example above in this manner:

     I had to research all of the information myself.
     I had to tracked down the original designers.
     I had to convinced them to help me put together a matching setup.

That didn’t work, did it? Those second two items on the list switched to past-tense verbs, even though the introductory text required an infinitive form of the verb (the basic, “unchanged” form of the verb). We can fix the sentence in one of two ways: we can fix the second two entries in the list or we can change the introductory text and first item in the list.

     I had to research all of the information myself, track down the original designers, and convince them to help me put together a matching setup.

     I researched all of the information myself, tracked down the original designers, and convinced them to help me put together a matching setup.


It’s that simple: items in a list should match one another in format, especially when it comes to the tense of the verb.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mismatched Lists, Part One

Lists tend to show up a bit less often in stories than in other writing like essays or advertising, but they’re often done wrong in any medium. The basics of list-making are simple: mention a series of items, events, people, or whatever, separated by commas. You can use an Oxford comma after the penultimate item in the list or not, whatever you prefer (seriously, though, use the Oxford comma). Here’s some examples:

     Cary’s wife called to remind him that he needed to pick up eggs, milk, and rice from the store on his way home.

     Liesel arose early that morning, washed thoroughly, dressed in her Sunday finest, took a moment to apply some makeup, and then headed to her meeting.

There are, however, a couple common mistakes that crop up in lists that I read. We’ll discuss one today and the second next time.

Mismatched plurality



When we refer to a singular item in English, it is usually preceded by an indefinite or definite article—more specifically, either the word “A” or the word “The.”

     Could you hand me the butter?

     Can I have a bite?

When you make a list, you still need to include A or The, just as you would have if the item was not part of a list:

     Incorrect: Could you hand me the butter, knife, and roll?
     Correct: Could you hand me the butter, a knife, and a roll?

Now, if several items in a list would take the same article and they are all in a row, it is sometimes acceptable to put the article before the first word but leave it off with the rest:

     To get this open, we’re going to need a screwdriver, drill, accordion, and some peanut butter.

     The thieves took my keycard, jacket, and cell phone.

The problem usually arises in lists that contain any combination of plural items, singular items, or items that do not have a plural. Because plural and non-plural-izable words don’t require A or The, some writers feel like they don’t need to add in a or the for any singular items in the list:

     Incorrect: For the trip, Liesel packed clothing, toiletries, book, and snacks.
     Correct: For the trip, Liesel packed clothing, toiletries, a book, and snacks.

     Incorrect: These apartments feature granite countertops, hardwood floors, in-home washer and dryer, ceiling fan, and wifi access.
     Correct: This apartment features granite countertops, hardwood floors, an in-home washer and dryer set, a ceiling fan, and wifi access.


If you’re unsure about whether or not you can leave out the A or The from an item on your list, just go ahead and put the correct article in. You might be able to leave it out, but you’ll never be wrong if you include it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Unintentionally Limited Superlatives

A superlative is an adjective or adverb which expresses that something is of the highest or a very high degree of a particular quality. Most superlatives use the suffix -est or are made through combination with the word most: examples include best, smartest, shortest, most clever, and most foolish.

Superlatives are usually limited by clarifying that the object being described is part of a narrower category. For example:

     Gabrielle was the smartest person Jun had met in his two years at the university.

     Jun is the most stubborn man at this school.

     This place has the best ice cream in town.

People almost always limit superlatives in this way to keep their expressions from being hyperbolic or ridiculous, or simply to be precise. However, I often see writers doing this unintentionally. For example:

     Prince Samuel paused, his breath catching in his throat. Across the ballroom stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in a sky-blue dress.

You see the problem, right? The author was trying to convey two things: first, that this woman was the most beautiful woman that Samuel had ever seen; and second, that she was wearing a blue dress. But by combining these two facts into one statement, the author inadvertently ended up sounding like a Flight of the Conchords song:



I see these sorts of unintentionally limited superlative statements with surprising frequency. The obvious problem with them is they tend to take a serious statement—one meant to convey a character’s awe or surprise—and turn it into something comical.

So how can you fix these sorts of sentences? Contrary to what many writers seem to think, a comma is not the best way to fix the problem:

     Prince Samuel paused, his breath catching in his throat. Across the ballroom stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, in a sky-blue dress.

Now it looks like you’re just saying the same thing, but with poor punctuation. The best way to fix unintentionally limited superlatives is to separate the extra description out into its own sentence:
    
     Prince Samuel paused, his breath catching in his throat. Across the ballroom stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her golden hair cascaded in curls over her shoulders, and she wore a sky-blue dress that sparkled with hidden gems.


Keep an eye out for this in your writing; if you want to hunt down any superlatives in your story, you can do searches for “most” and for “est ” (with a space at the end) to get it done quickly.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Punctuation Problems: Proper Parentheses, Part Two


On Punctuation With Parentheses

Parenthetical statements come in two varieties: small statements within a sentence, or longer statements of one or more sentences.

When inserting a parenthetical statement into a sentence, don’t move any of the sentence’s punctuation into the parentheses or adjust the grammar of the sentence to account for the text in the parentheses. You should be able to completely remove the parenthetical statement from the sentence and still have all grammar and punctuation flow correctly:

     Original: While I was speaking with Ludwig, I was also texting my wife.
     Wrong: While I was speaking with Ludwig (my step-father,) I was also texting my wife.
     Right: While I was speaking with Ludwig (my step-father), I was also texting my wife.

     Original: I don’t dislike Ludwig, but I don’t really enjoy his company, either.
     Wrong: I don’t dislike Ludwig (or his children,) but I don’t really enjoy their company, either.
     Right: I don’t dislike Ludwig (or his children), but I don’t really enjoy his company, either.

As a good rule of thumb, if the parenthetical is within a sentence, two things should be true: first, you should not begin the parenthetical with a capital unless it is a word that is normally capitalized (like a name); second, you should never have any punctuation at the end of the statement inside the parentheses. The only exception for this is if the statement is a question or an exclamation, in which case you can end it with a question mark or exclamation point, respectively. Note, however, that the question mark or exclamation point will not end the sentence.

     Wrong: Ludwig is really smart (He is a physicist.) and kind of socially awkward.
     Right: Ludwig is really smart (he is a physicist) and kind of socially awkward.

     Wrong: I don’t really get Ludwig (and probably never will;) he doesn’t really get me either.
     Right: I don’t really get Ludwig (and probably never will); he doesn’t really get me, either.
    
     Right: The other day, Ludwig wore lederhosen (seriously  . . . lederhosen?) to my baseball game.

     Original: But he bought me ice cream afterward, which was nice.
     Wrong: But he bought me ice cream afterward (my favorite!) Which was nice.
     Right: But he bought me ice cream afterward (my favorite!), which was nice.

If, on the other hand, your parenthetical statement is a sentence or more, then simply insert the entire thing into your paragraph as you would any other sentence, only with parentheses around it:

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go. (I’d have to skip out on band camp. I’m a section leader this year, so that seems like it would be irresponsible.) But my mom really wants me to come.

Note that, as always, the entire parenthetical statement could be removed from the paragraph without a problem:

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go. But my mom really wants me to come.

This is why you should make sure that none of the information outside the parentheses refers directly to any of the information inside the parentheses—otherwise, the parenthetical wouldn’t be able to be removed without affecting the flow of information.

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go. (I’d have to skip out on band camp. I’m a section leader this year, so that seems like it would be irresponsible.) But my mom really wants me to come, so I may need to get permission from my Band Director.

Without the parentheses, that paragraph wouldn’t make sense:

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go. But my mom really wants me to come, so I may need to get permission from my Band Director.

In such cases, you’re best off moving more information into the parentheses or getting rid of the parentheses altogether.

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go, but my mom really wants me to come. (I’d have to skip out on band camp. I’m a section leader this year, so that seems like it would be irresponsible. I may need to get permission from my Band Director.)

     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go. (I’d have to skip out on band camp. I’m a section leader this year, so that seems like it would be irresponsible.) But my mom really wants me to come (so I may need to get permission from my Band Director).


     My mom and Ludwig are planning a big vacation to Germany this summer, so that he can show us where he grew up. I’m not sure I want to go, since I’d have to skip out on band camp. I’m a section leader this year—skipping seems like it would be irresponsible. But my mom really wants me to come, so I may need to get permission from my Band Director.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Punctuation Problems: Proper Parentheses, Part One

The Short Version

When writing a story, use parentheses as sparingly as possible.

The Long Version

There are some forms of punctuation that are generally frowned upon in professional writing, such as the interrobang (?!), repeated exclamation marks, and emoticons. Using parentheses to create parenthetical statements, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable punctuation usage. So why do I recommend that you do so sparingly?

One of the greatest challenges of writing is getting your thoughts to flow smoothly from one to the next without any hard-to-follow leaps that will be difficult for readers to follow. You want your story to flow naturally and logically, A to B to C to D and so on rather than G to W to T to G again. If this is done well, readers can breeze through hundreds of pages at a time without ever having to pause and figure out what is being said—your thoughts will flow as naturally through their minds as their own thoughts do.

Now, if you read this post, you know that parentheses are specifically supposed to be used to insert information into a sentence or paragraph that is no more than loosely related to the topic at hand—“flavor” text that might be interesting, might be funny, but isn’t actually needed. In other words, parentheses are intended to insert information that will specifically interrupt the smooth, logical progression of thoughts that most writing is intended to achieve. It is hard enough to manage such smooth prose normally; but if you’re adding extraneous thoughts left and right, it’s going to be even more difficult. So use parentheses as sparingly as possible.

What qualifies as “sparingly” will vary depending on the style of story you’re writing. If your story is being narrated—either in first-person by one of the characters or by an omnipotent third-person narrator with its own personality—then you’ll be able to use more parenthetical statements than in other situations. In these situations, parenthetical statements can be used to mimic the often-erratic nature of speech and oral storytelling, to give your protagonist or narrator more of a realistic and engaging personality. 

Third-person-limited and narrator-less third-person-omniscient stories, however, aren’t narrated by characters. In those sorts of stories, parenthetical statements will be more likely to interrupt the flow of the narrative—I would go so far as to recommend avoiding parentheses entirely in such stories, if at all possible.

Found this nice little explanation here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Punctuation Problems: Breaks

There is a set of punctuation marks that are used to separate thoughts in writing, which I like to refer to as Breaking Punctuation. They are the comma ( , ), the em dash ( — ), the semicolon ( ; ), the colon ( : ), parentheses ( ), and the period ( . ). Each of these has a subtly different meaning from the others, which we’re going to break down here.


The Period

The period is the ultimate and strongest form of breaking punctuation, which is why it’s known as a “full stop” in the UK. It is placed at the end of the sentence to indicate an end to that statement and a transition to a new one.


The Comma

Buttersafe.com, everyone.


The comma is used to provide a bridge between very closely related statements or between sequences of incomplete statements. You’ve probably noticed that proper comma usage can be very tricky to master, and you’re not alone in that experience. We’ve covered some of the depths and complexities of comma usage in several posts, but for now what you need to know is this: the comma connects closely related thoughts, and the period separates finished, more-or-less unrelated thoughts.


The Semicolon

The other forms of breaking punctuation fall on a spectrum between the comma and the period. The semicolon is halfway between the two; it generally separates statements that could be broken into individual sentences, but which the author wants to be connected in the mind of the reader. Use it sparingly—it tends to create sentences that are very long and difficult to follow.


The Colon

The colon serves the specific purpose of introducing information; it can only be used if the text preceding it says something along the lines of, “I am going to tell you this.” So, for instance:

     Gary picked up all of the items on the list: a pickaxe, a jump rope, and
—for some reason—a huge container of lard.
     This is what I was sent to tell you: that you must put an end to your company’s project, or your world will be destroyed.
     You have chosen the greatest hamburger of all: the Beefinator.

Remember: the colon should only be used if the text before it is somehow introducing the text that comes after it.



The Em Dash

The em dash is the jack of all trades. It swings back and forth between the comma and the semicolon and the colon. It can be used in place of a comma to provide a little more emphasis to the pause between related information, or in place of a semicolon to provide a little more connection between statements. It can also serve as a sort of weak colon, separating an initial statement from another that provides more connected or explanatory information. Often, I’ll simply use it to create variety when I’ve already used several commas or semicolons. But be careful about using it too much—the em dash is wide and easily noticeable, and a cluster of them in the same area of the page will tend to stand out garishly.



In summation, the comma is weakest form of breaking punctuation, used to separate closely related information; the semicolon separates weakly related or unrelated statements; the colon separates introductory text from the information it’s introducing; the em dash can serve as a strong comma, a weak colon, or a weak semicolon; and the period is the full stop that means that the previous statement is complete and we are moving on to something else.



P.S.
It may seem like there is considerable overlap between the uses for these breaking punctuation marks—that’s because there is. Often, you’ll be able to use either a period or a semicolon; in other cases, either a colon or a semicolon or an em dash would work. What punctuation you choose should depend on how connected you want the information it breaks apart to be, on how much you’ve already used each form of breaking punctuation, and on how you want the sentence or sentences to flow.  That is the reason for this post—to let you know how the breaking punctuation can be used, so that you know what your options are when you have more than one.

P.P.S.
If you want some helpful homework, go back over this post again and pay particular attention to the breaking punctuation. You’ll notice that I’ve used each form of breaking punctuation at some point, and in just about every way they can be used. Find each point where I’ve used a breaking punctuation mark, and make sure you understand why I chose that particular mark at that point in the text. Good luck!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Subject-Verb Agreement, Part 3: Miscellaneous Problems

We’ve previously discussed subject-verb agreement and some of the ways writers get it wrong. Today, we’ll cover a few more common, miscellaneous errors, and then we’ll put this subject to bed for a while.


Indefinite Pronouns

An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun that refers to a non-specific person, object, or place; examples include anyone, everyone, someone, no one, and nobody. Although many of these words seem to refer to multiple people (such as everyone and anyone), they are in fact singular nouns.

     No one has arrived yet.

     Somebody needs a hug.

     Everyone is here.

Photo from My English.

However, a difficulty commonly arises when indefinite pronouns and other pronouns are used together:

     Someone has left his keys behind.

The trouble is that someone has no implied gender, but English lacks an animate, non-gender-specific pronoun. (It is not gender specific, but it also is not generally animate—by which I mean that it doesn’t generally imply a sentient being.) This is a sensitive issue for many people who feel that masculine pronouns such as he or his should not be used by default for an unidentified or nonspecific person. There are many suggested workarounds for this problem. You can use the compound pronoun his or her (or her or his, if you prefer):

     Someone has left his or her keys behind.

If that feels awkward to you, then you’re not alone in that feeling. Another suggested workaround (the most common solution that people use in their day-to-day speech) is to use the pronoun their. While there is technically plural, it is an increasingly acceptable practice to use it as an indefinite singular pronoun in these sorts of situations:

     Someone has left their keys behind.

Note that the sentence uses has and not have—despite the use of the plural pronoun their, someone still remains singular.

The final (and usually best) solution is to simply rewrite the sentence to avoid the pronoun altogether:

    Someone has left some keys behind.


Each

Like the examples above, each is always singular. Writers are often confused because each has a tendency to be followed by a prepositional phrase ending in a plural word:

     Each of the cars comes equipped with GPS.

The phrase “of the cars” does not change the plurality of the subject—each is the subject, and it is always singular.


Neither and Either

Again, neither and either are both singular, despite the fact that they refer to two things:

     Neither of the lawnmowers is working.

     Either way works for me.


Portions

Words and expressions that indicate a portion of a greater group or whole are sometimes singular and sometimes plural. These include half of, a part of, a percentage of, a majority of, all, any, more, most, and some, as well as fractional expressions like one-third. The plurality of these phrases usually depends on the “whole” of which they refer to a portion—if the whole is a plural word, then the portion will also be plural, but if the whole is a singular word, then the portion will also be singular. For example:

     Most of the workers (plural) are upset.

     Most of the water (singular) is tainted.

     One-third of the vehicles were faulty.

     Two-thirds of the estate was lost.

Note, however, that the phrase “more than one” is singular:

     More than one pilot has tried that stunt.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Avoiding Repeated Words

Too many repetitions of the same word in a short space, such as within a single paragraph or even withing a single sentence, can be distracting to your readers and throw off the flow of your prose. Take a look at the following example:

     The wall was too tall to climb, but only just; it was short enough to seem climbable but tall enough that a fall from anywhere near the top would kill you. Raek studied the wall carefully and realized that the top of the wall was covered in a slimy-looking green moss that would make climbing impossible. But if he couldn't climb it, how would he get over the wall? The wall was between him and the chalice. He had to get past the wall.

Notice how the words "the wall" get repeated over and over again? Six times in one paragraph. Some variation of the word "climb" appears four times as well. It feels awkward and clunky.

No matter how good the word is, too much will make your readers sick. Don't be a Trunchbull.
Cleaned up, that paragraph might look like this:

     The wall was too tall to climb, but only just: it was short enough to seem scalable but tall enough that a fall from anywhere near the top would kill you. Raek studied the wall carefully and realized that the top was covered in a slimy-looking green moss that would ensure that anyone clinging to the rock would lose their grip. But if he couldn't climb the wall, how would he get over? It was between him and the chalice; he had to get past.

This version is smoother, with just three uses of "the wall" and two of "climb."  Some of the repeated words were removed by heavily re-writing the sentence, some were simply not necessary to begin with and could be removed without changing anything else, and others were replaced with synonyms ("scalable" in place of "climbable").

That final method, using synonyms, is one of the easiest ways to avoid repetition:

     The manor loomed above her, at least three stories tall. The entire edifice was wreathed so thickly with crawling ivy that it was difficult for her to tell what the manor was made out of.

In this example, we've used edifice in place of manor in one spot, to avoid using the word "manor" three times in two sentences. The variety of descriptive words helps the prose to flow more smoothly.

The same thing can be done to avoid repeating a character's name too often. Take this example from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn (emphasis added):

     "Fears?" Kelsier asked, turning to look up at Sazed. Despite Kelsier's above-average height, the Terrisman was still a good head taller. I'm not sure if he fears anything, Saze."

Notice how the author avoided repeating Sazed's name by referring to him as "the Terrisman." It is the same method of avoiding word repetition.

Some cautions:

Don't use too many synonyms

In the example above, we used edifice in place of manor. Here are a few other words we could possibly have used: building, structure, dwelling, residency, or mansion. But if you look at that example again, you'll notice that I chose to use the word "manor" twice rather than replace it with one of these words. Why?

Too many synonyms can become confusing to the reader; it becomes difficult for them to keep track of what they all refer too.  It also calls too much attention to the fact that you're trying to avoid repeating yourself, which can pull the reader out of the story. Usually, you don't want to use more than one synonym for a given word in a section. So in the first example, I might have described the manor simply as a building when the characters were far away and still approaching it. Then, when they have drawn close and I am describing the manor's appearance, I use manor and edifice, but no more than that. 

Make sure that it is clear what your synonym refers to

Another hazard of using synonyms is that they are not always as clear as the author thinks. We'll take the example of manor again. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists the following words as synonyms for the word "manor":  castle, chateau, estate, hacienda, hall, manor, manor house, manse, palace, and villa.

The problem with most of these words is that they evoke a completely different image than the word "manor."  Take this example:

     Amy was relieved to finally leave the manor behind. As they drove away, she turned and looked out the back window as the palace vanished behind the trees.

That didn't work at all, did it? Using palace almost made it sound as though there were two buildings, as if Amy left one building and is now looking at another. Don't use synonyms unless it is clear what they're replacing.

One more caution on using synonyms as placeholders for a character's name (as in the Mistborn example above) can be found in this post.