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Word Repetition and Sundry

Word repetition is something I think most writers try to excise from their writing. Sometimes it's good to say something twice to clarify a point or to achieve an effect. Often it's just lazy writing. Last night when I came across these two sentences, I was reminded how important catching such infelicities can be.

Miranda ducked through a burned doorframe, between two still-standing sections of wall, and even her iron-willed composure cracked at the sight that greeted her. Gasping, she had to put her hand out and grip the doorjamb, for her knees went weak as the sight of dead children greeted her. (Shadow of a Dark Queen, Raymond E. Feist - page 127)

When I read the first sentence a little red flag went up when I came to "at the sight that greeted her." What's wrong with this phrase? It's clichéd personification, trying to attribute human qualities to an inanimate object to falsely pump up the emotion. This can be fobbed off on the casual reader from time to time, and when I encountered it in the first sentence above I decided to let it slide because I'm enjoying Feist's book. He's not a great stylist, but he can tell an interesting story and his characters come alive. But when I read "as the sight of dead children greeted her" my patience quickly ended.

Another thing I try to watch out for are pronouns like "he" or "she." Whenever I see one of my paragraphs loaded with three or more of the same pronoun I'll take a few moments to see if I can make it better. In a third person narrative one way to fix the problem is to use the POV character's name, swap the pronoun out for the proper noun when it feels right, though sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.

First person narratives have their own problems. Have you ever noticed (and I'm sure you have) where the overuse of the word "I" snakes down the page like a testament to the Me Generation? Often you have to accept this as a convention of first person narrative, but as a writer it's something I try to watch out for.

Thoughts? Do you have any pet peeves on word repetition (or clichéd personification) that "greet you on the page"?


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 28th, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC)
My goodness--that bit is chocked FULL of bleh writing!

Excellent post, Marshall.
Jun. 28th, 2010 05:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Terri! I try to not let a patch of bad writing deter me from a book. This novel has enough good things to keep me going, but when I saw the double use of "...greeted her," it hammered home my quest as of late to spot word repetition in my own writing.
Jun. 28th, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC)
That's the best--when we're not only entertained, but learn something in the process.

Wow...Sesame Street's been right all along!
Jun. 28th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)
I'm pleased by pleasing dissimilarity.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 28th, 2010 05:47 pm (UTC)
Yeah...I might think about this too much. Maybe. *g*

Nah, writers are like engineers in that we like to take the machine apart and put it back together, see what makes it tick. Though as readers it can get in the way. That's why in the best fiction you don't see the gears turning, just hear the music it makes on the page.
Jun. 28th, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC)
Ouch, that repetition is painful.
Jun. 28th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
And then I had to go and greet my flist with it. ;-)
Jun. 28th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
Jun. 28th, 2010 09:04 pm (UTC)
The word "just" is a personal bane of mine. I'm not a To Be Nazi. I don't try to excise the use of that verb completely, but I do try to limit the number of times it appears on a page. *That* kind of repetition drives me crazy. In first drafts I definitely overuse it. And the personal pronoun thing--yeah. If I see too many iterations of paragraphs beginning with them in a row or on a page, I try to do something about that, too.

I actually have a whole list of weasel words and other things that bug me and when I'm doing my final spit and polish draft I spend a lot of time searching and destroying those.

Edited at 2010-06-28 09:08 pm (UTC)
Jun. 28th, 2010 09:10 pm (UTC)
Yes, I too overuse "just" in my first drafts. But then they just gotsta go!
Jun. 28th, 2010 10:46 pm (UTC)
Just as you said: it's just a habit that just has to go.
Jun. 29th, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
Oh, I do what you do for the most part, unless... There are times when I leave the repeated words in there, either for emphasis or to show that yes, the character does this. Of course, it can't be overdone, or it will be terrible.

I also have a tendency to remove every instance of the word "knew" when I edit. The sentence "She knew that sheep were actually vicious killers" is much more powerful without the "She knew" - even if it makes the narrator less reliable.
Jun. 29th, 2010 07:47 pm (UTC)
I also have a tendency to remove every instance of the word "knew" when I edit.

Yes, not everything needs to be filtered through the POV character, He knew, he saw, etc. Good example.
Jan. 9th, 2011 06:50 am (UTC)
learned a lot
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


Marshall Payne
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