Monday, April 22, 2019

Stop Me If I’ve Told You This Before

By Yolanda Smith

Ever feel like a broken record? Ever feel like a broken record? Okay. I admit that’s a lame opening sentence. Nobody under the age of thirty-five will have had an occasion to hear a scratched record. If you’ve had the aggravation joy of owning LPs at some point in your history, you’ve experienced the infernal rush to lift the needle and stop the irksome clip of repetition charging through your brain.

Repetition has its place, and folks have called it the key to learning. But it is not the key to good writing. I’ve listed some repeat offenders (wink, wink) to be aware of when self-editing your work.

Repeating Words
One of the easiest offenses to commit is word repeats. The good news is it’s also one of the simplest to recognize and remedy. See if you can spot the culprits in the following paragraph:

Nora’s juice trickled across the floor. She held her breath and glanced from the floor to Mama. She waited to see what Mama would do. The floor had just been mopped this morning, and a sticky floor was at the top of Mama’s list of aggravations. The last time Nora had spilled juice on the floor Mama had made her scrub the floor once with a rag, and again with a toothbrush.

This paragraph has additional structural issues, but we are focusing on the repeats. Check out the rewrite and see how this issue has been resolved:

Nora’s juice tumbled off the table. She held her breath and glanced from the mess to her mother. She waited for what would surely follow. The floor had just been mopped this morning, and sticky tile was at the top of Mama’s list of aggravations. The last time Nora had caused this catastrophe Mama had made her scrub the surface once with a rag, and again with a toothbrush.

One of the simplest fixes for word echoes is to search the synonym list in the thesaurus. Still, this doesn’t always solve the problem. Some words don’t have a large synonym bank from which to draw. Here, writers get to be creative in rearranging phrases and sentences to eliminate the word or find other ways to convey the meaning.

Repeating Phrases
When phrases are repeated, even at larger intervals, they catch our eye faster than single word infractions:

If Melvin hadn’t been precariously perched under the stairs that day, he would never have known who his real grandmother was. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, and it would never have happened if Clyde hadn’t lost the bronze amulet between the worn treads. In fact, this was the time of day Melvin would have been precariously perched on the roof instead.

It’s easy to smell a pet phrase from a mile down the road. The longer or more unique a particular phrase is, the less a writer can get away with reusing it.

Repeating Ideas
A subtler reiteration has to do with the rephrasing of ideas. Here’s a sample:

Anxiety is something we all deal with at some point in our lives. It is not an isolated emotion that attacks a relative few. Worry is not specific to gender, age, or socioeconomic status. Concern does not discriminate between people of faith and nonbelievers. Apprehension hounds everyone.

This five-sentence paragraph might have been reduced to the first sentence alone, but would have, at a minimum, benefitted from culling the second and fifth sentences.

Repeating Actions
This writing faux pas makes an appearance more often in fiction than nonfiction. Characters who are forever nodding, smiling, standing, or sitting make for dull story companions.

It is important to give characters a wide variety of actions, as well as individual traits that distinguish them from one another. However, none of their unique actions should resurface across every scene. We are creatures of habit in real life, but habits on the page will bore the reader unless these inclinations are sprinkled selectively throughout the manuscript.

Repeating Sentence Starts/Repeating Paragraph Starts
This is another easy-to-spot, easy-to-fix blunder.

Janelle held the gun in shaking fingers. She couldn’t believe she’d pulled the trigger and felled the invader. She had no idea who he was, but Daddy had taught her to shoot first and ask questions later. She nudged him with her toe to make sure he was dead.

What tools could we use to repair this sample? The possibilities for improvements are limitless. Change statements to questions, combine short sentences or divide long ones, or experiment with word order. Paragraph starts are harder to watch out for, but a glance through each scene or chapter with a laser focus on opening words will reveal any missteps.

Repetition for Emphasis
Occasionally writers need to repeat a word for emphasis. Occasionally. These instances need close examination and should be spread thinner than a skimpy paycheck.

If you struggle to find repeats in your manuscript, help can often come in the form of a read-aloud session. This is especially effective if someone else reads your work to you.

Repetition is not my friend. My teenagers have a compulsion for saying, “Mom, you’ve told us this already.” I don’t want my readers doing the same, and I’m guessing neither do you.

Let me hear from you. Which of these infractions do you struggle with most? What are your best remedies for weeding repeat offenders?

(Photos courtesy of and Stuart Miles.)


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