I am a very lean writer (not a lean person, mind you, that’s a different meeting). I think when you pare a sentence to its essence, making sure that every word is critical and sparkly, that’s when the power comes through.

Many writers (and not just beginners) end up saying something more than once. It can be obvious, like repeating a thought a couple times in a manuscript, or even in the same paragraph. I believe that writers do this because:

  • they’re unsure it was clear the first time

OR

  • They weren’t happy with the sentence to begin with

Readers comb your pages, looking for clues, hints about the characters or what’s going to happen. They get nuances way earlier than we authors think they do. Trust your reader!

You can even get away with the repetition for a while, but after a few of these, what comes across to the reader is that you think they’re too dumb to get it the first time. When actually, it’s yourself as a writer you don’t trust, not the reader!

I think it’s easiest to see in examples, so I’ve been saving them up:

 

“Um. I’ll let you know.” My voice comes out soft – unsure.

The ‘um’ shows us the character is unsure. The tone (softness) is good.

“You…” I shake my head, confused. “want me to do what?”

A head shake shows confusion.

He points the gun, a silent threat.

In a story, a gun is always a threat!

I fight to control my breathing, to keep my little sips of air from becoming hyperventilation.

See how controlling breathing Is telling, and the rest of the sentence Is showing? I’d change It to: I fight to keep my little sips of air from becoming hyperventilation. Or maybe, ‘spiraling to the edge of hyperventilation.’

His t-shirt is plain and black with no identifying logos or tags.

You can cut ‘plain’, because the rest of the sentence describes plain.

The man digs a box from a cabinet and jiggles it in the air.

Where else would you jiggle it but the air?

I see this a lot, too:

‘the smile on her face…’

Where else would a smile be?

‘A tear fell from her eye…’

‘The shoe on his foot jiggled….’

‘His shoulders lifted and he shrugged….’

You seeing these now? Because once you see them, you’ll write them lots less often.

And yes, I still catch myself doing it unconsciously. It’s when I edit that I catch them. Even more when I read my work out loud.

Oh, a little off the subject, but if you want to write in closer POV, cut the ‘senses’ from your writing.

Instead of,

‘I saw her walking across the gym toward me, a frown on her face.’

You’re right, where else would a frown be? But also, cut the ‘saw’. How much better is this?

‘Footfalls booming, she strode across the gym floor toward me, fists clenched.’

or

‘I heard the whistle of the 5 O’clock train out of Topeka, twenty miles away.’

Becomes:

‘The long, lonely whistle of the 5 O’clock train out of Topeka drifted on the cold night air.’

 

Have I convinced you that subtle repeats matter? Want to go check your WIP?

That’s where I’m going!

4 Comments

  1. Gregory Mark Henry on June 3, 2020 at 2:48 pm

    Really important points, Laura. Great blog, especially for someone like me that has a weakness here. It’s hard to learn this (for me, at least.) Part of the problem is feedback when someone doesn’t understand something. It’s hard to know what it is they didn’t understand, and further edits may accidentally introduce more of these repetitive problems (explaining things that don’t require additional explanation because something else was unclear.) This may be one of the more common feedbacks I receive still to this day- “Trust your reader”. Yeah, I trust them. I just don’t trust myself that things are clear- it’s learning to trust myself more that may be the underlying issue.

    • Laura Drake on June 3, 2020 at 3:10 pm

      I get it, Mark. Communication is hard, whether it be in person or in writing. I know you are a very literal person, which probably makes it harder for you – You read more into feedback than most. Best to you!

  2. Jay Hicks on June 4, 2020 at 5:36 am

    Hi Laura. I like how you point out: ‘…once you see them, you’ll write them lots less often.’ This is why I love the payoff of learning. Exciting! And I’ve read enough of your lines and paras quoted by Margie Lawson to know that it’s a two-way street – trust the reader, and they’ll trust you. Thanks for sharing this. x Jay

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