“He did this already.”
“She just said that.”
“This comes up a lot. Why?”
These are notes I have written on many manuscripts. Many writers know they’re too verbose with their prose or make their dialogue more concise. But do you know that many writers unwittingly repeat themselves in their writing? Repetition can come either through dialogue or narrative in fiction, and can be found in many forms in nonfiction. This issue is often one of the more difficult elements to spot when editing your own work. An example:
But what a fine day it was indeed, with the sun shining and a slight breeze rippling through the blades of grass. Julia was skip-skip-skipping down the lane, and although she seemed to be the very picture of an idyllic childhood, with her yellow dress and blue bow, her mind was somewhere else, somewhere much darker. She passed the butcher shop and the haberdashery, still skipping as she went. Her saddle shoes clipped along the cobblestones as she travelled through the heart of town, and she smiled at the passersby who knew her parents and would likely mention seeing her later. She wondered if they could see the dark thoughts on her face despite her smile. Rounding the bend toward her auntie’s house, she saw the glints of dew and heard the warbler’s song – but her mind was unsettled. Her aunt’s house grew larger as she continued, and soon she could see Aunt Ellen in the sitting room window, rocking slowly in her chair. Julia nailed her lips into a faux smile to hide the preoccupation of her mind, and she climbed the porch steps to knock on the door.
In this sample, we the readers are notified that something unpleasant is on Julia’s mind four times in one paragraph. Having not written this yourself and also having already been introduced to what you’re looking for, these instances of repetition seem to jump right off the page. Why do we do this as writers?
Reader Distrust or Writer Insecurity
The most common cause of unnecessary repetition in writing can be described as distrust in the reader or insecurity in the writer. Many writers worry that the reader will not understand the story, or will somehow glaze over the important bits that they need to pay attention to. Nonfiction writers often worry subconsciously that their point is not coming across well enough and feel the need to “clarify” multiple times. In the example above, it’s made clear in the first mention that something about this lovely picture of a child skipping on a spring day is not what it seems. There is no ambiguity or sly implication—it’s stated plainly there on the page. So there’s no need to worry! If you are being clear, your readers will understand. It often takes a bit of personal practice to learn to trust and respect your reader’s intelligence, as well as your own ability to explain what’s in your mind.
Attempt to Clarify
-Sometimes writers realize that their first attempt at explaining something was too vague or confusing. So in order to bolster our point, we say it again. Instead of repetition, we can alter the first instance and produce a much more concise and pleasurable reading experience.
Attempt to Build Emotion
In fiction, repetition might also be an attempt to build suspense, intrigue, or some other emotional tension. Repetition is not necessarily a poor way to do this, but a writer must be careful to find the balance between too subtle (such that the reader’s emotions are not heightening) and overdone (such that the writing is affected).
Writing Yourself In
It’s no secret that writers often get stuck in the creative process. In order to free ourselves, sometimes we try to “write ourselves in” to a fiction story, a hard introductory paragraph, or another sticking point. In the case of the example story, this seems as though the passage could be the very beginning of a book, or maybe a new chapter or character introduction. Let’s say the writer knows the beginning plot point of this section is that Julia is going to poison her Aunt Ellen. He may have just started writing to get the momentum going, only knowing generally how things needed to unfold. When we write like this, we often repeat the few things that we know concretely to try and kickstart our creative motors and get things rolling. This is by no means a bad way of writing—at times it’s very necessary. The key is to go back and scrub those fits and starts from the manuscript with professional editing.
Sometimes we see things very vividly in our minds as we’re writing, or feel a strong emotional attachment to a particular point, theme, moment, character, line of dialogue, etc. The personal importance of these elements sometimes finds its way into the story through repetition. For example, if the author of the example story had a very intense mental picture of what the dark clouds in Julia’s mind looked like, he may have subliminally written them into the story more strongly because they feel more concrete to him. This can also happen if we get caught up in the mood of our own writing (which is a good thing!). If we’re writing a passage that makes us emotional or excited, sometimes that excitement comes out as a repetition of thought.
Here’s the example of the sample story again, having been edited by a Hickory editor:
What a fine day it was, with the sun shining and a slight breeze rippling through the blades of grass. Julia was skipping down the lane, and although she seemed to be the very picture of an idyllic childhood with her yellow dress and blue bow, her mind was somewhere else—somewhere much darker. She passed the butcher shop and the haberdashery, her saddle shoes clipping along the cobblestones. As she travelled through the heart of town, she made a point to smile at the passersby who knew her parents. Rounding the bend toward her auntie’s house, she saw glints of dew and heard a warbler’s song. Her aunt’s house grew larger and soon she could see Aunt Ellen in the sitting room window, rocking slowly in her chair. Julia climbed the porch steps and nailed her lips into a faux smile. She knocked on the door.
So how do you avoid doing this? You don’t, really. There’s no method or system or graph or grid or mnemonic device that will fix repetition, and finding repetition in your writing does not make you a bad writer. Most writers develop an awareness of their own habits the more they write, and this often helps to eliminate problems before they reach the editing phase. But for those issues that do always seem to slip through the cracks, you have Hickory.