While doing the latest edit on my novel, IN THE SHADOW OF THE DRAGON KING, I realized (and my fabulous beta readers pointed out) I had a tendency to repeat words or phrases. My big ones: “He shuddered”, “He rubbed the grit from his eyes?”, and I must have repeated the word ‘gut’ fifty times if I said it once. The thing was, I didn’t notice it until I was running through my final edits. So, I decided to write about it and in doing so, maybe help you identify and eliminate redundancy in your own writing before you have to look at a 370 page manuscript and then try to find them all.
To me, repetition is repetition. It’s just some are noticable where others aren’t. We all use common words in writing: a, the, and, it, etc. These words we tend to overlook when we read; that is how much our mind has become accustomed to seeing them and we tend to skim over them. It is repeating those ‘elegant variations’, those words that catch the reader’s attention, that need to be weeded out.
Let’s take an example from my own writing. I have lots of sorcerers, magicians, mages, etc. in my novel. There was a scene where I have a sorceress tied to a tree and she is being tortured by a sorcerer and an enchantress. Another magical character shows up. There are lots of sparks and spells flying. That meant I had to come up with different words to show what these spells looked like. “The thread . . . the arc . . . the streak . . . the fire.”
Why? Because I didn’t want to repeat the same word half a dozen times in a single paragraph. The first paragraph below is the repetitive version.
“From the dark depths of the forest, a sizzling streak of blue light shot forth, hitting the ground to the left of the wizard’s feet. Avida screeched, “Seyekrad, you fool, you released your hold! Put it back!” Blue-green streaks flew from her fingertips catching Seyekrad on his shoulder. A black streak tore from his wand, crippling Avida’s advance upon him. From behind him, another blue streak arced from the forest; its cool icy heat caught him just on the elbow. More blue streaks unraveled in the dark.”
Here’s a version of the same paragraph with a bit of elegant variation:
“From the dark depths of the forest, a sizzling streak of blue light shot forth, hitting the ground to the left of the wizard’s feet. Avida screeched, “Seyekrad, you fool, you released your hold! Put it back!” Blue-green fire flew from her fingertips catching Seyekrad on his shoulder. A black thread of magic tore from his wand, crippling Avida’s advance upon him. From behind him another blue strand arced from the forest; its cool icy heat caught him just on the elbow. More blue tendrils unraveled in the dark.”
Elegant variation is a way to avoid repetition of notable words that make readers think you fell into a rut with your writing. However, repetition is not always a bad thing. It can be effective in a parallel structure, for example:
“He couldn’t leave, but he couldn’t stay.”
“There was no way in, there was no way out”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
In these examples, the repetitive parallel structure shows contrast and confusion and can be helpful in setting a tone for a novel.
Repetition is also good for emphasis, especially in dialogue:
Charlotte glared at her husband who stood in the doorway, his potbelly hanging over the top of his pants. She kicked a chair out of the way. “I’ve been gone two days . . . two days and look at this mess! What in the hell did you do while I was gone? Oh, God, I hate washing your clothes, I hate taking care of your screaming, bratty kids and I hate that you park your ass on the couch and never help me! Damn it, Charles. I hate I ever married you!”
And even though there are no hard and fast rules about it, I also try to avoid starting two successive sentences or paragraphs with the same word. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but being aware of the tendency forces me to look at ways to vary my sentence structure so I don’t fall into slow, poky rhythms.
So, are you a repetitious writer and if so, how do you become aware of your repetitions and what do you do to correct the redundancies? (Are you like me and have a thesaurus that is worn in two? :-))