By John Robert Marlow
If there were a heavyweight championship for writing mistakes, repetition would be a leading contender. As an editor of both fiction and nonfiction, I see this again and again and again. And again. The basic issue comes down to this: writers are expected—by agents, managers, editors, readers; everyone who matters, really—to have large vocabularies. Repetition indicates that the writer in question either: a) doesn’t know any better, or; b) can’t be bothered getting it right. The first screams “amateur;” the second, “lazy.” Neither is a word you want applied to you. Repetition can be deadly in any one of several, all-too-common forms:
As a general rule, avoid using the same word (or similar words) multiple times in quick succession, as this makes for a poor read. Word repetition creeps up on the best of writers, who often don’t notice while lost in the throes of creative passion. Professional writers do, however, notice on their next pass—and correct the problem before anyone else sees the manuscript. Amateurs don’t notice, or correct.
Names are among the most common repeat offenders. Frequently, this occurs when someone is quoted, and then mentioned in narration—or vice versa: “We have no suspects at this time,” Sheriff Bumble said. Sheriff Bumble declined to speculate as to why the dead clown was smiling.
The Dreaded Double
The worst repeating-word offender is the “double,” in which the same word appears twice in a row. That makes the error screamingly obvious—which, in the eyes of editors and agents, makes the writer that much less attentive for missing it. Often, doubles happen where sentences join, like this:
Bill handed the crocodile to Bob. Bob screamed when it bit his arm off at the shoulder. Shouldering his backpack, Bill bent down and picked Bob’s arm up off the street…
Overall, the “double” is the easiest type of repetition to spot and correct. Writers who fail to catch these most likely sent the manuscript out the moment they typed “The End,” without bothering to read and “proof” it from start to finish.
Always, always try to eliminate doubles.
Repetition can also be a problem when a word repeats pages, even chapters after its last occurrence. The more unusual the word, the less frequently it should occur. No one’s going to notice that you used the word “man” or “woman” two pages ago—but throw in “hermaphrodite” on page 26, and you can be sure that readers who see “hermaphrodite” on page 347 will remember having seen it before. The same is true of…
Pretty much the same logic applies here. Sometimes, our own favorite phrases—ones we use in daily conversation—will creep into the writing. Which is fine, so long as they’re appropriate and well-placed. But what often happens is this: we’ll use the same phrase two, three, or more times without realizing that we’re repeating ourselves. Or we’ll think up a cool phrase and put it in, not realizing that we’ve already used it.
To the reader, this looks—at best—like lazy writing. At worst, it comes off like the ramblings of an old-timer who can’t remember what he told you two minutes ago—and so proceeds to tell you the same thing all over again.
Exceptions must have a purpose, and usually appear in dialogue. Phrases can be repeated for comedic, ironic, or dramatic effect. The film A Perfect Murder makes wonderful use of the ironic turnaround: lines like “What if there were no tomorrow?” and “That’s not happiness to see me” are each voiced by Steven and Emily (to each other, at different times) in emotionally charged scenes dripping with tension. The movie300 has a magnificent turnaround line (three, actually) involving Queen Gorgo and Theron.
Each of these exceptions has one thing in common: in every case, the repetition is intentional.
He Said, She Said
One of the most common repeat offenders is the “He Said, She Said Syndrome,” in which every (or nearly every) line of dialogue is followed by “he said,” “she said,” or “[character name] said.” I once counted 34 of these in a row. Take it from an editor: few things get old faster than this.
Intentional repetition—whether of words, phrases, or whole passages—rarely works. Any time you’re thinking of repeating something intentionally, ask yourself why. Then ask yourself whether the repetition has the intended effect. Then show it to someone else and ask them (without explaining your intended effect beforehand), because you’re biased.
Repetition is, well, repetitive. As an author, you’re expected to have a lot to say. You’re also expected to have an unusually large vocabulary with which to say it. Repetition flies in the face of both expectations. It’s like having two noses, when you should have only one: it makes you look bad bad bad.
So give your writing a facelift, and dump those doubles—along with your other repeats.
John Robert Marlow is a novelist, screenwriter, book editor and adaptation consultant. His book Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood will be published in December 2012. John blogs at Make Your Story a Movie and Self-Editing Blog. This article is excerpted from his Repeat Offenders blog post.
(Copyright © by John Robert Marlow)