Post: Don’t be repetitive (or redundant for that matter).

4 Jun

A Humana advertisement appeared on my television screen today as I was watching a program about the history of American meats on the History Channel (I was almost surprised they didn’t do something on Alien Jerky) and I noticed something oddly peculiar about the commercial. Well, noticed isn’t exactly the correct word; it would have been incredible if I didn’t notice this interesting tidbit. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a link to the actual commercial to better show my point, but the spokesman said the word “veteran(s)”  roughly fifteen to twenty times in the sixty-second ad. To put things into perspective, a sixty-second ad will probably be about one or two-hundred words. Meaning that the density “Veteran” rivaled the number of people who believe that the world will be destroyed within their lifetime. The point is, the frequency of this word was way to high for the length of the commercial.

Which brings me to today’s post: repetition. Now, repeating something is one of the most prevalent ways of assertion. In fact, studies have shown that the more something is mentioned as fact, the more readily accepted it is. Even if said assertion makes no damn sense. But there comes a time where trying to convince turns into beating an audience over the head with a verbal stick. This is an issue which plagues many new authors, and the axiom of the practice are their collective insecurities. We’ve all been there. We had some great plan for a novel or a story with some incredible message hiding in the subtext. But we didn’t want just the educated to pick up on it, so we’d throw hint after hint until we were sure you’d get the picture.

Usually, this meant that the reader would end up drowning in hints. The finale was burdened with becoming a life boat for our poor readers. Unfortunately, it can be equated with searching for a man in the middle of the pacific… in a rowboat. The great truths of our work were overshadowed with all of the redundant build up.

Other times, it’s a word. I read an article about how Stephen King seemed to really favor a certain four letter word (which isn’t even in my top five explicits. Really Mr. King, you can do better than that word. There are so many better ones out there). The writer of the article expressed a certain disgust because the word  seemed to be tossed around haphazardly. However, the same word was tossed around quite a bit in The Things They Carried and no one really complained about the profanity. Perhaps because it was uniquely appropriate. But these specific cases will illustrate that repetition is really a case by case issue. Sometimes it accentuates a piece and makes it poignant. Others, you get so exhausted of seeing a word repeated you just want to write the author a list of synonyms.

I remember my mother once compiled a list of my “favorite words.” All of which I had successfully “both beaten and asphyxiated to death.” Amongst that list are the words “preponderance, duality, inherent, propagate” and many others. Notice how none of those are simple; words don’t need to be overtly simplistic to be redundant. I somehow managed to take advanced vocabulary and make it so droll that I even wanted to fall asleep reading the words.

That being said, don’t tip-toe around words either. There are times when I’m reading a truly excellent work and I notice that the author seemed to be dwelling on something minor. I swear, I once read a book with enough synonyms of “scary” to choke a night-mare (Hah! Get it?!). The word “scary” itself was used precisely twice. However, I was forced to endure the storm of “ghoulish, terrible, terrifying, frightening” adjectives. In this case, the author certainly wasn’t repetitive- but they sure as heck were redundant.

Redundancy is just as fatal to writing as unnecessary repetition. Imagine trying to immerse yourself in a good read about, say, a virtual reality, when the author can’t help but use a million different words for fake. Note: the link is guaranteed to not have a million different words for fake. It is similarly guaranteed to take you to an excellent science-fiction short story.

Could you imagine reading that story if it was just inundated with similar sentiments and words? The plot simply wouldn’t advance; it’d get caught upon little nuances that may or may not be important to the reader. It’d be a failure instead of being as successful as it is.

So how can we fix repetition and redundancy in our own writing? After all, we are trying to tell stories and many of us are just trying to be sure that the story is properly understood. Well, first, you need to have faith in the audience. Many beginners delude themselves into believing they can reach a universal audience. They point to people like Stephanie Meyer (shudder, shudder) and J.K. Rowling as proof that stories can have such an appeal. Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Although both franchises are obscenely lucrative, they both reach only a certain audience. How do I know this? Because I know several people who hate those series. They simply couldn’t get into the books. My girlfriend didn’t like Harry Potter. She’s an avid reader, she loves fantasy novels, but she just couldn’t get through the first book. (But of course, as luck would have it, she enjoyed Twilight. She will admit that the wording is poor, even if she enjoys the story. The story, obviously, isn’t my cup of tea- so we let our mutual dissension of the writing make our relationship stronger). Point being, is that neither of these writers intended their stories to be read by certain people. Do you think Meyer wanted the kind of people like the Oatmeal reading Twilight? Of course not. Do you think Rowling wanted intense biker dudes reading Harry Potter? No, it’s a kids book at heart. And they worded their stories to their audiences. By doing so, they didn’t have to worry as to whether or not their hints hit close to home; by writing to a specific group of people, they were able to pick certain words that they knew reverberated within that sub-culture. That way they didn’t have to drown their audiences in hints and words. They already knew what was going on from the get-go.

Second, it’s old advice but… murder your darlings. I once read in Stephen King’s On Writing that he shaves about 20% of the book after the primary edit. His basic formulae: if he likes it but his wife doesn’t understand it, it’s gone. I’m personally more stubborn than King, I only edited about 15% of my book out in the first edit, and another few hundred or so in the last few read-throughs. If you only choose what’s truly necessary, it’s essentially guaranteed that your point will be poignant. No need to tip-toe around clues or shove words down reader’s throats, your point will be known. You just need to have faith in your own diction.

As for the Humana commercial, I think that hiring an editor would have gone a long way.

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