Tag Archives: Writing Tips

Repetition and Redundancy

At first glance, someone might think the title to this post is redundant, but these two phenomena—repetition and redundancy—are actually different and therefore I am not truly saying the same thing using different words. Indeed, the one can sometimes serve the writing whereas the other is always deadly.

First a look at repetition. One repetition problem occurs when the author repeats an action. The character is about to step into the street, but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from walking in front of an oncoming car. Some chapters later, this same character is about to lean over a porch railing but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from … You get the idea. These incidents may be set in different places, but the plot point is repetitious.

However, repetition primarily occurs at the “word choice” level. Either in dialogue or in narrative, the author relies on the same word over and over, either throughout the manuscript or throughout a scene, a paragraph, or a sentence.

Repetition draws attention to the word—and therefore, the person or object—that is being repeated. If the object isn’t intended to be the focus, the repetition draws attention from what the readers should be thinking about.

One author I edited used the word “door” so often in one scene, it was hard to focus on what was happening that moved the story forward. The character walked to the door, turned the door handle, opened the door, slammed the door, went to the car door, opened the car door, slid through the open door, closed the door. And yes, I may be exaggerating, but not by much. 😉

Even names can be repeated to the point of distraction.

I remember one manuscript I critiqued in which the two characters, who were the only ones in the room, used each other’s names in every line of dialogue throughout a scene.

Repetition’s ability to draw attention, however, can be something an author uses intentionally. Abraham Lincoln’s short Gettysburg Address is a wonderful example of the positive use of repetition. Notice the words I’ve marked.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

There are actually others that I didn’t mark—devotion, dead, consecrate, conceived, rather, It is, for us. The overall effect is a piece that is poetic and nearly musical. The repetition creates a rhythm as well as a focus.

Generally such an extensive use of repetition isn’t appropriate for fiction, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. There may be a highly emotional piece of internal monologue that lends itself to just such a strong use of repetition.

Redundancy is a different animal. Rather than repeating an event or words, an author employing redundancy is rewording what he has already said. I elaborated on its use in fiction (without naming it) in my last post (see point number five).

Sadly, redundancy has no positive use that I’ve discovered. Instead, it slows a story, at best, and at worst, insults the intelligence of readers, though the author may be more in doubt about his own ability to get his ideas across than about his readers’ ability to comprehend what he’s saying.

In short, repetition must be used judiciously and redundancy, not at all.

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For a more complete treatment of redundancy, see “Redundancy And Sleep.”



Filed under Word Use, Writing Rules

Formatting a Manuscript

Sometimes I forget I once had to learn the basics. I take for granted that “everyone knows” just how a manuscript should look before it goes off to an editor or agent, but how would we know unless someone tells us?

I discovered the “first impressions” rule at a writers’ conference. Even the manuscript critique team member could hardly discuss the elements of my story during my fifteen minute appointment because that person who took on my submission wanted to impress upon me the importance of following standard industry formatting guidelines.

I later purchased The Writer’s Digest Guide to Manuscript Formats, which by now is outdated. Yes, these industry standards change.

The secret is to remember that editors and agents see thousands of submissions. You want them to be happy to pick up yours because it is easy to read.

What is NOT easy to read is some odd font, single-spaced content, and narrow margins.

So format your manuscript by using a common font, the kind you find in books or the newspaper. I prefer Times New Roman. Double space your manuscript. Not single. Not one and a half. Also, don’t add an extra line between paragraphs. Set your margins at one or one and a half inch, for both sides and top/bottom. I use one inch—seems like the occasions I’ve had editors or contest coordinators ask for an exact margin, it was always one inch.

Be sure to indent the beginning of each paragraph (typically a half inch), but do that manually, rather than setting up your computer to tab automatically when you hit return. It seems that characteristic may not transmit if you send your manuscript electronically.

Those are the basics, but of course if you have specific questions, feel free to ask.

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Filed under Formatting