Self-editing: Repetition, echoes, and saying the same thing over and over again
The first in an occasional series of self-editing blogs, in which I address common writing errors, and marvel that my fifteen years’ editing experience doesn’t stop me making them.
Today, repetition, which comes in three main forms.
‘Turn round.’ John looked round, and saw the round muzzle of a gun pointed at his face. He sagged, realizing they had been roundly defeated. His enemy smiled. ‘Round them up!’
It’s appallingly easy to do. I fix this for authors on a daily basis, but I still turned in The Magpie Lord to Samhain with so many unconscious repetitions I was hiding behind the sofa with embarrassment when I got my edits back.
Read the MS aloud to catch these, or if you are in public or find yourself totally word-blind, run your MS though a piece of software such as this free one. I wouldn’t ever use an automated grammar check function, but as a basic highlighting tool to flag duplicate words, this can be very helpful.
NB: Don’t go mad with a thesaurus to change every instance. The above paragraph would not be improved by replacing instances of ‘round’ with ‘circular’, ‘rotate’ or ‘pirouette’.
Concept repetition, micro level
Peter and John are alone in a room.
‘You want me to carry this thing, Peter?’ John asked, prodding the gun with a finger as if it might explode. ‘I don’t like guns.’
Just consider how much of that is repeated concepts.
‘You want me to carry this thing [if you must have a noun here, use one that isn’t null]
, Peter?’ [they are alone in the room, John knows who he’s talking to]
John asked, [there’s a question mark right there to tell us he’s asking]
prodding at the gun with a finger. [what else would he prod it with?]
‘I don’t like guns.’ [A restatement that adds nothing and gives no flavour of his character. Useless. Plus repetition of the word ‘gun’]
And without repetition:
‘You want me to carry this?’ John prodded the gun as if it might explode. ‘I’d rather leave violence to the experts.’
Repetition of meaning can be tricky to spot. Read slowly, and look hard at passages where your attention starts to skip or you feel the text drag: you’ll probably find concept repetition lurking within. And trim your speech tags as much as possible. See here for how much I hate speech tags (a lot).
Content repetition, macro level
A real example from my soldier/spy romance, which I’m currently editing.
Curtis and da Silva are trapped in a country house. They have discovered that their host is a ruthless villain; if the host learns his secret is out, our heroes are for the chop. That’s crucial for the plot. So crucial, in fact, that I seem to have written three separate conversations where da Silva makes this very point to Curtis – or, rather, where I make it to the reader. Yes, it is dangerous! Lots of danger! Be very afraid!
What’s actually going on here is that I haven’t set up the threat properly in the first place. There are two key plot elements coexisting in the first scene where our heroes are faced with the threat, and I concentrated on the other one, at the expense of the sense of danger. Because the threat only comes across as a secondary element of the scene, it isn’t sufficiently convincing. I wasn’t consciously aware of this as I wrote the first draft, but my lizard brain seems to have tried to patch that hole by demanding extra passages to assure the reader that the danger is real.
Nice try, lizard brain. Unfortunately, repeatedly telling your readers something is not the same as convincing them it’s true. If you find yourself making the same point over and over, you’re probably compensating for something that isn’t working. Go back to the scene that should have established it in the first place, and make it happen there.
Go on a repetition hunt. It’ll do terrible things to your word count, but such glorious things to your text.
Thank you for this. I’ve been looking for a repetition-finder for eons. I would have sworn Word 2003 had this function, but I can’t find it in Word 2010 so maybe I dreamed it. I’ll definitely be using this.
Ah-ha! Yes, I do this more than I like… Time to edit differently. Merci for the writing tip.