Thursday, September 3, 2009

Repetition as a clue

I suggested that we avoid replacing common words (esp. verbs) with synonyms which are unusual enough to call attention to themselves, for example: He crossed the room, not He traversed the room.

But I was asked whether to stick with "cross," for example, if you've already used that several times-- isn't "traverse" better than repeating "cross"?

My thoughts-- repetition is not a tool of the devil. It's less of an evil than words that will stop the reader from reading to go look them up in a dictionary-- what happens to pacing then? Go with
the most RIGHT word, and the less it calls attention to itself the better-- but if the RIGHT word is something arcane and unusual, well, okay. But "traversed" rather than "crossed"? I'm just not sure that "traversed" is a good enough, evocative enough, beautiful enough word to waste a lot of time on. Do what feels right, but understand the implications of it.

Me, I wouldn't halt the flow of the narrative for a word like "traversed," but that's me. I think SENTENCES, not words particularly, should be made interesting, and sentences can aid or impede pacing and meaning.

What I'm trying to say is: If it works, it works. If you want to use the word traversed, go ahead. If it works, if it gives the reader a better experience (for example, in a more formal prose style, it might be le mot juste). I just wouldn't do it to avoid repeating "crossed". If I didn't want to repeat "crossed," I'd re-craft the whole sentence, because it's not just repetition of a word, it's repetition of an ACTION, and if the former is wrong, the latter is too. Words are great, but they are part of sentences, which are expressing action, thought, and feeling, and if the experience is repetitive, I probably have to change more than just the words. So I guess if the repetition of a word (especially a verb) bothers you enough, sticks out enough, what I'd suggest is that you go
back and see if you're repeating the ACTION too much.

For example, let's say I'm writing a letter, and I realize I have started almost every sentence with "I"-- I am doing this, I visited so and so, I'm feeling sad, I I I. Now the problem is not that every sentence starts with "I", and the solution isn't to invert the sentence order: "Barcelona was the last place I visited." The problem is that I'm obsessed with myself, and my narcissism and self-centeredness is showing in the paucity of my vocabulary. :) The solution is to go back and rewrite the letter to be more of a conversation than a press release-- to at least pretend as I write that I care about the recipient of the letter and, actually, the whole rest of the world that isn't "I".

That is, repetition of a word might indicate repetition of a far more dastardly sort. (Remember that old joke? "But enough about me! Let's talk about you! So... don't you think I'm fabulous?" )

Sentences are about their meaning, not about their words. So if your words are repeating, use that as a clue to find out what else is repeating, what deeper is repeating. And see if you need to transform THAT into something fresher, and the words will be fresher too.

So-- be thinking of wording and sentence problems as perhaps being symptoms of something being wrong with your scene or story. If there's a passage with boring, vague terminology and sentences, that could be because the passage itself, the action, the thought, the viewpoint, are boring. And you can't fix that problem by fixing the words... but fixing the underlying problem will probably lead you to a more vibrant expression and wording.



Bethany Michaels said...

I've found that if I write about a character doing or saying something 'again', or if I write that the character didn't know what to say, it's usually that the AUTHOR is repeating herself or didn't know what to write for the character to say (or both). I delete those lines when I catch them and try again :)

Edittorrent said...

Oh, right, Beth. I sometimes write, "He searched for the right word," and then I realize that I'm the one who can't find the right word!

Murphy said...

Is it just me, or are you on a roll? Another awesome post! Thanks!
Signed Murphy,
Whose life was changed for the better, after the PPP weekend extravaganza!:D

Edittorrent said...

I am, natch, procrastinating. Semester has started. Papers await. I'd rather talk about sentences with people who know what they are. :)

Dave Shaw said...

Yep - 8 to 10, out on good behavior in 5.


Murphy said...

Alicia! LOL! Where were you when I was in school?.........Wait don't answer that. I don't want to know.

PatriciaW said...

The one that throws me is "gaze". Or even "look".

I mean they're hard to get around. Sighted individuals are constantly seeing, looking, gazing. How many ways can this be said? I hate ridiculous synonyms but I'm to the point, in romances anyway, where I almost want to toss a book when I see "She gazed...", "He caught her gaze...", etc.

As a writer, I'm guilty too, but I haven't figured out a good alternative yet.

Wes said...

You guys are on a roll. The blog has always helped us be better writers, but I feel like I've vaulted from undergrad to grad school lately.

I get what you are saying in this post, but I need to rant about one of the most succssful authors of our times who has won great acclaim for his novels and screenplays created from his novels. This morning I finished his Pulitzer winner of 2007. Near the end I noticed a five-sentence paragraph where four sentences began with "He", and one began with "His". I realize that success allows one to make one's own rules, but he breaks so many (no quotation marks, other types of repetition, ambiguity about who is being written about, mixing time periods, main characters with no names, to name a few). However, I'm evidently too dense to understand how these practices advance his art.

OK. The rant is over. I feel better. We should all be so successful.

Edittorrent said...

Wes, I think I know who you mean. :)

How does his prose "feel"? That sounds staccato, almost ruptured (hey, mixing metaphors is cool! Not everyone can mix music in with medicine like that).

I don't think I could read even a chapter like that, much less a whole book.

Mystery Robin said...

I can't even begin to tell you how much I loved that post. I love that there are people in the world that dissect sentences like this and love and understand grammar and writing like this.

*slow clap*

Leona said...

I just ran into this problem yesterday. I was rereading one of my short stories and found button in the same paragraph like three times. I had bellybutton, unbutton, and button. I reworded the whole thing, but I think I still ended up with two buttons.

Does anyone know of another word for unbutton or bellybutton. I thought of undid, but it didn't sound right at all.

Jami G. said...


Could you use something like "unfastened" instead of the "unbutton"?

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Navel? That's sort of a clinical word, though.

Leona said...

Unfasten probably would have worked; I feel a duh moment.

Whenever I read navel, I get distracted. I wonder if the person who is going through the action is detached clinically. Maybe it's just me. I've had EMT training so I 'hear' things differently than the average romance reader.

Does anyone else get that feeling?

But, to be fair, it didn't even occur to me to try it in that case. My brain was stuck on stupid. :D

Jami G. said...


Don't feel bad. It happens to us all. :) I had gone through about 30 editing passes (and that might not be an exaggeration...) and had never noticed that I'd used the words "blood" and "body" about 11 times on one page. Yeek! That was definitely not repetition on purpose, that was just me plain not noticing! :)

Jami G.