Great stories can be ruined by too many words. Redundancy in particular can make your prose squeak like the clarinetists in a middle school band (I’m allowed to say that because I played clarinet).
Not all repetition is bad. It can be used to emphasize or connect important ideas, like “I have a dream” in MLK’s best-known speech. But most of the time, it’s simply clutter.
You want the reader so immersed in your story that they forget they’re reading words on a page. Anything that reminds them of your fingers on the keyboard MUST go.
We’ll look at four types of undesired repetition today:
- Dialogue tags
- Character names
- Pet words
- Hidden redundancy
Grab your manuscript and a utility knife!
“Clear your desks,” Mrs. Wilson said. “It’s time for our unit test on Shakespeare.”
“You didn’t tell us we had a test today,” Susie said.
“I’ve reminded you every day for a week,” Mrs. Wilson said.
“This is totally unfair,” Susie said.
Already tired of reading that? Your English teacher might have written “said” on a paper gravestone and hung a laminated poster with alternative words. She praised you when your characters remarked, bellowed, sneered, groaned, spat, hissed, and growled.
These alternatives can certainly come in handy. By themselves, however, they don’t solve the real problems:
“Clear your desks,” Mrs. Wilson commanded. “It’s time for our unit test on Shakespeare.”
“You didn’t tell us we had a test today,” Susie complained.
“I’ve reminded you every day for a week,” Mrs. Wilson admonished.
“This is totally unfair,” Susie muttered.
Much more pressing than the many “saids” are the repetition of sentence structure and the use of dialogue tags in Every. Single. Sentence. What about this instead:
Mrs. Wilson tapped her meter stick against the chalk tray, and student heads popped up like meerkats scenting a predator. “Clear your desks,” she said. “It’s time for our unit test on Shakespeare.”
Susie’s mouth fell open. “You didn’t tell us we had a test today!”
“I’ve reminded you every day for a week.” The teacher walked to the end of the row and began counting out test papers.
Susie slumped in her seat. “This is totally unfair.”
After I removed 75% of the dialogue tags, how did you know who was talking in those lines? Through the characters’ actions, which also help paint a picture of the classroom. Sometimes you can also omit the actions and just have dialogue. The key is to vary your approach.
The bell rang. Mrs. Wilson closed the door and strode to her desk. As students chatted and pulled out books, Mrs. Wilson wiggled the mouse to wake up her computer. Before she could click on the attendance tab, however, she saw that a new email had arrived. “We need to talk” glared at her in bold from the subject line. Sender: Principal Ames. Mrs. Wilson gripped the mouse. No. She wasn’t going to read this in front of the students. Mrs. Wilson clicked the attendance tab and tried to forget about the little time bomb in her inbox.
How many times was “Mrs. Wilson” repeated in that paragraph? Go ahead and count.
(No, I’m not answering it for you. Go count.)
The many Mrs. Wilsons probably jumped out at you because you read the paragraph with fresh eyes. You might be surprised at how many good writers do it, though.
It’s like this. You write, rewrite, ponder a single sentence for thirty minutes, and eventually finish a scene over a period of days or weeks. You’re too close to it. You don’t realize how many times you’ve forgotten to use a pronoun.
My rule of thumb when editing is to use a character’s name no more than once per paragraph; less, if I can get away with it. Here’s the edited version:
The bell rang. Mrs. Wilson closed the door and strode to her desk. As students chatted and pulled out books, she wiggled the mouse to wake up her computer. Before she could click on the attendance tab, however, she saw that a new email had arrived. “We need to talk” glared at her in bold from the subject line. Sender: Principal Ames. She gripped the mouse. No. She wasn’t going to read this in front of the students. She clicked the attendance tab and tried to forget about the little time bomb in her inbox.
Sometimes this doesn’t work. You might have multiple characters acting and speaking, in which case pronouns can become confusing. Let’s assume Principal Ames is a woman:
Mrs. Wilson knocked tentatively on Principal Ames’ door. “Come in,” said the principal. Mrs. Wilson wondered if the principal’s voice was angry or stern. Maybe Mrs. Wilson was just reading into the principal’s voice. Calm down, Mrs. Wilson thought. She straightened her shoulders and turned the knob.
Look at all the contortions and repetitions I used to keep the “shes” straight. Sometimes it helps to rename the characters or revise to avoid naming them at all:
Mrs. Wilson knocked tentatively on Principal Ames’ door. “Come in.” Was her voice angry? Stern? Maybe I’m just reading into it. Calm down. The teacher straightened her shoulders and turned the knob.
We didn’t need “said the principal” because the reader will assume the principal is responding to the knock. The next couple of “Mrs. Wilsons” are easy enough to drop, especially when we turn some of the indirect quotes of her thoughts into direct ones (italicized). The final “Mrs. Wilson” becomes “The teacher.”
We all tend to reuse certain words. Sometimes this kind of repetition becomes an endearing catch phrase, like Sheldon Cooper saying, “That’s my spot.” More often, however, these pet words distract the reader.
One client described characters’ thoughts “carouseling” in their heads—effective and original the first time, but less so after three or four instances. Another’s characters snapped their heads around in surprise six or eight times. In most cases like these, my advice is to change all but one or two.
Pet words can be the hardest type of repetition for the author herself to recognize. Be on the lookout, but this might be something your editor or beta readers catch for you.
These repetitions are difficult to spot because they’re hidden within acronyms or word definitions. You might already be familiar with the most famous example, “ATM machine.” Since “ATM” stands for “automated teller machine,” you’re actually saying “automated teller machine machine.” So just say your character stops at the ATM on the way to the theater.
Likewise, if your character starves to death, he dies of hunger to death. (Look it up.)
Other common examples:
He shrugged his shoulders. (As opposed to shrugging his knees?)
She squinted her eyes. (As opposed to squinting her thumbs?)
He nodded his head. (I think you’re getting the idea.)
You might want to consult this list of 200 common redundancies in English while editing:
There are exceptions, of course. People say “ATM machine” all the time, so using it in dialogue is an authentic touch. PLEASE don’t mess up dialogue by making it sound like an academic essay! Real people use language imperfectly; so should your characters (to some extent, but we’ll talk about this more in another blog post).
That concludes your guided tour of the Department of Redundancy Department! Now go trim that fat out of your manuscript.
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