Friday, January 10, 2014

Pete and Repeat...

…were sitting on a bench. Pete fell off. Who was left?

Repeat.

Pete and Repeat were sitting on a bench. Pete fell off…and so it goes…on and on and on.

Skilled writers who are proficient in grammar and punctuation and who know how to structure compelling sentences can kill a potentially great work with redundancies. Saying the same thing three or ten or twenty-five different ways, unfortunately, can drive a reader off to another book. Let’s consider a couple examples:

We need to be aware of the ways in which our words affect others. How we say things can dictate response and mood in our reader, so we must be mindful of this possibility. In fact, the reader may have an adverse reaction to our words, one we never intended. That reader may even be offended and take exception to our stated position. We want to be sure we don’t create an unintended response.

“Have you talked to Mary today?”
“She called me this morning.”
“What did she say about her situation?”
“Only that she has it under control.”
“What does that mean?”
“She’s taking care of matters.”
“Does she seem okay with the way things are going?”
“She’s handling it.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?”
“She’s managing on her own.”
“Shall we move ahead with the project?”
“We need Mary. She’s involved in her own situation right now.”
“Yes, I know, but we have a deadline.”
“Mary’s too busy to do her part at the moment.”
“But we have work to do.”
“Mary’s engrossed in her own problems. She can’t help us.”

We’ve already put these books down. The redundant discussion concerning the effect of words and the going-nowhere conversation are the last straws that put Pete and Repeat to shame. While these examples are extreme, I often find authors stating and restating the same thoughts in different words. Scenes that could be great instead turn readers off, and powerful points are lost in a sea of repetitions that render them impotent.  Moral of discussion: say it right and say it once—unless you have a valid reason to repeat for emphasis or it moves your story forward.

What did I learn from this in 2013? I learned to be more patient with writers as I nudge them to forgo the redundancies and bring something new to the table. In addition, I learned to be more critical of my own work to eliminate saying a good or powerful or memorable (in my opinion) thing over and over and over. Once is enough.

Have you read books that state and restate the same points? Do you ever find this a problem when self-editing your own manuscripts? If you are a beta reader or an editor, how do you address redundancies with sensitive writers who take every criticism—no matter how valid—as a personal affront?


Linda Lane and her editing team look forward to new opportunities in 2014. We wish you all the best in the new year.

16 comments :

  1. Redundancy can also be accidental, especially in a novel written over the course of many months or years. Occasionally a beta reader will circle something and note "You already made that point."

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    1. Yes, it can, Larry. Thank you for bringing up this point. I should have clarified that this isn't the kind of redundancy I'm addressing. Beta readers are invaluable (as are editors) in noting these unintentional repetitions when writers don't catch them on the self-edits.

      Nonfiction can be particularly prone to contain redundancies, especially when a writer uses a variety of scenarios to validate a central point or theme. In such cases, some repetition for emphasis works, but continually repeating the same point in different ways (especially in the same paragraph or subheading or chapter) will often annoy rather than convince the reader.

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  2. As managing director of the Department of Redundancy Dept., I can only say, over and over, that this problem must be addressed.

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    1. Ah, Christopher, I can always count on you to leave me with a smile.

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  3. I rely on my critique group to catch my redundancies and I am quick to catch theirs. I notice them everywhere: on television shows, the news, magazines. I read a two page article in a medical journal recently that made one key point with no supportive data or progression of thought for two pages. Once in a while, like in a mystery, the sleuths may need to rehash what they know or think up to a certain point and how it has changed, but oh so rarely. Every paragraph and every chapter should move the story forward and offer something new to the reader.

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    1. Sad, isn't it, Diana? One has to wonder where the editors are. Surely, Quality control, it seems, has too often been out to lunch when the story or the article or the script passed through. Critique groups, as you mentioned, and beta readers, as Larry said, are indispensable when the system lets us down. So we have the accountability factor...but that is another discussion.

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  4. Redundancy is super common in:
    • articles that are blown up into books, yet probably has enough material for oh, say, an article
    • fiction manuscripts where the author fears she'll never be able to fill an entire book.

    The first is just a crying shame. The irony of the second point is that you can't fill the book until you get the story moving, one new thing after another. Allowing your prose to circle over itself, again and again, can actually cause the anxiety that keeps you circling!

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    1. You're so right about articles that go on far longer than the topic warrants, Kathryn. Some were obviously never cut out to be books, even if they become one.

      Getting fiction moving is another matter. The writer who micromanages every word of dialogue and every scene never allows her characters to tell their own stories...hence that circle you mention. Turn them loose (with some prudent guidance, of course) and the story practically tells itself without any help from Pete and Repeat.

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  5. One early lesson I learned was that you should never repeat anything unless it added something new. I recall an early crit partner who was writing about someone traveling across the country giving speeches, and the author repeated the same speech, word for word every time he showed a scene where this person was campaigning. That's the extreme. However, if John and Mary have a conversation, then there's no need for Mary to repeat it for Bill when she sees him later. A simple, "Mary recounted what John had said" covers it. Then, if you have new stuff to add, you can do it. I know, as a writer, especially when writing in deep POV, YOU know Bill doesn't know it yet, but the reader does.

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    1. Exactly, Terry. The writing life is one of (hopefully) continuing growth and includes learning how to move the story forward without saying the same thing over and over. This is a skill we need to master early because our book is our résumé, so to speak; if it doesn't impress the reader, that reader won't be buying our next story.

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  6. If you fear your reader didn't pick up the meaning the first time, see this post:
    http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2013/12/how-to-spotlight-important-prose.html

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    1. Thank you for citing this post, Kathryn. Readers, please note the paragraph on purposeful repetition. This is, of course, a different "animal," but it makes the point that not all repetition is redundancy. When used appropriately and with thought, it is a powerful writing tool.

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  7. I find my first drafts are brimming with redundancies. I put it down to my rule of Just Keep Writing and Don't Look Back. I've found the same scene written three different ways. I've learned to look at what differs between the versions and then decide how to deal with it all.

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    1. Good call, Elspeth. I'm betting that you may take the best of each to create a killer scene. :-)

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  8. I loved this! You had me at Pete and Repeat...
    (I'm definitely showing my age, aren't I?!)

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  9. Redundancies are definitely a problem in some books I read. Good authors know how to give the reader credit--to let them discover for themselves. But I also think you can error on the other extreme... it's important not to be too vague. Oh the joys of balance! :)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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