Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Dreaded Repetition Curse

by Annette Lyon

In recent discussions with writer and editor friends (and in recent editing myself), I keep running into the dreaded repetitive word and/or phrase phenomenon. If you can avoid the disease, your writing will be crisper and more professional, guaranteed.

Repetitive words are relatively easy to avoid and fix when you're doing short pieces, since you can read the entire work in one sitting (even aloud) and catch the repetitions. For that matter, you probably WROTE the entire article or short story over the course of a relatively short period, so there are fewer of them to begin with (how many times are you going to use the word, "gregarious" if you wrote the entire short story in three days? Once, maybe.)

On the other hand, book-length works are another matter altogether. Chances are you've worked on that 90,000 word (or longer) tome over the course of months and months. So it's easy to find yourself repeating words that you don't even remember using already in the same book.

You end up with something like this: the scene where you describe your heroine's heart thrumming against her chest was written six months after the one in which the hero's heart hammers against his chest. Yet your reader comes across both descriptions in the same afternoon and wonders why you don't have a shred of creativity.

Unfortunately, the only way I know of to get around this (aside from trying to be fresh all the time, but that's not foolproof, alas) is to wait until the thing is done and then read it all the way through, start to finish, QUICKLY. That way you'll catch things you've repeated again and again.

Trust me on this one; you WILL repeat things. You'll think you're using a great new word or phrase for the first time, only to discover that you already used it. Three times.

As you read over your whole manuscript, you'll also notice that wow, a lot slew of people's stomachs flip over themselves. And hmmm, a lot of characters are clenching their teeth! Maybe I do need to find another way to describe some of these emotions.

Aside from emotional descriptors, watch out for repetitive filler words like that, was, suddenly, little, then, and even directionals like up, over, and toward. Some body parts get a workout from some writers like eyes, hands, heart, and feet.

And of course, in every book, you'll end up finding a few words that are somehow your personal "favorites" to repeat over and over for that manuscript that you'll need to start cutting or find replacements for so you don't sound like Dr. Seuss.

Do a search in your word processor for these words and fix them for that clean, professional feel. And then you will sound creative to your readers, because you will have stretched yourself, forced yourself to come up with new ways to write. And that is creativity.

1 comment:

Janette Rallison said...

I am SOO guilty of this. I catch some of them during rewrites (and yes, I do sit down and read the whole thing from start to finish because of this very thing) but still things slip by me. In one book I had the hero run his hands through his hair repeatedly--like in real life he would have lost all his hair, the way he kept doing that.

In another book I wrote that a "small smile played upon his lips" three stinkin times. AHHHH!