A Novel Observed #11 – Repetition Repetition

The Writing Stage

The Writing Stage

Finally, in chapter 4, we’ve set foot on the smallholding itself. You can read the full draft chapter here – it’s called Manicure and Manure. I enjoyed writing this just as much as the previous one, but on reading it through I noticed one of my pet hates rearing its ugly head with disturbing regularity.

“What is this terrible thing?” I hear you cry.

The answer: REPETITION

What we’re dealing with here are those occasions where a word occurs twice or more times within the same or adjacent sentences. Now, it’s okay for some words to be used in this way: articles, pronouns, prepositions and the like. But for nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs – words of substance – it is not okay.

It’s not always wrong, of course. There may be times when a word of substance is deliberately repeated. For example, it’s fine in some dialogue situations, such as:

‘Steve! There’s something big crawling on your neck!’
‘On my neck? Whaddya mean, “On my neck”? Get it off!’

It may also be repeated for deliberate effect, such as:

She turned back to the door, but it was gone. There was no door. There had never been a door…
I was tired. Ben was tired. Everyone was tired. Even Helen, who had been carried most of the way, was tired.

But unintended repetition is bad. Really bad. It just sounds so… well, bad! And this first draft of chapter 4 had plenty of it. Consider this example:

‘Grab that green plastic bag for us, and we’ll head on up.’ Shaking his head, Sebastian half climbed, half fell out of the trailer.

The repetition of ‘half’ is fine – it’s there for effect – but repeating the word ‘head’ is just bad writing.

Here’s another two examples:

Thankfully, most of the pellets had landed the other side, so he didn’t squash any of the beasts as he landed, hard on the ground. He hardly noticed.

And another couple:

Neil signalled with his left arm, though there was no one else in the road, and turned back down the hill. Sebastian turned his back so the butcher wouldn’t see his face…

It doesn’t matter that there’s a ‘his’ jammed between the repetition of ‘turned’ and ‘back’, it still grates when you read it out.

Two things I want to consider here:

  1. Why do these repetitions occur in writing, when they tend not to in speech?
  2. Why do these repetitions make the writing sound so bad?

Why We Repeat Words When Writing?

I say ‘we’. Really, I mean ‘I’. And I think the answer is that, when writing, I’m imagining a scene and describing it as it unfolds. Because of this, I tend to use the first words that come to my head. If I spend too long picking and choosing words, or leafing through a thesaurus, I’ll lose the flow. Also it’d take an age to get the first draft completed.

This being the case, if I am writing, say, a sentence in which I am describing someone crossing the road, there are many ways I could do this:

He crossed the road
He walked across the road
He headed across the road
He strode across the road (unlikely due to the annoying rhyme!)

And so on. Now, if I’ve just used the word ‘head’ in the previous sentence (e.g. ‘…he replied, with a shake of his head’), then I’m much more likely to use ‘headed’ in this sentence because it is fresh in my mind. So, although I’m not aware that I’m repeating the word at the time, ‘headed’ is the word my brain provides and that’s what gets written down. Ta-dah! Repetition.

Why Is Repetition Bad Writing?

I did a little reading around on the net and the general consensus of opinion is that the kind of repetition we’re talking about demonstrates ‘a lack of maturity in writing’, because the writer is failing to ‘entertain the reader’ – the text needs to be ‘spiced up’ with synonyms etc.

That’s sounds like nonsense, though, doesn’t it? It’s basically saying that repetition is bad writing, because people want to read books with a broad vocabulary. Surely, what people are after is a good story, something to escape into, at least as far as fiction is concerned. But even in a book that uses a vast amount of different words, the kind of repetition in the examples above would still be poor writing – even if it occurred only once.

I think the real reason repetition grates is that it makes a book hard to read. When I read this chapter out loud, I tripped up over these repeated words, especially the turned/back one – it was like reading out a tongue-twister.

On a side note, I made up a tongue-twister for my kids the other day. Try it out a few times:
“Which rich witch switched which wristwatch?”

So, yeah, while repetition may be a symptom of a narrow vocabulary, I don’t think that’s what makes it sound wrong. It’s more that it makes the text hard to read.

Not that any of that matters yet – it’s a problem for the third draft (the read-through). But it’s still a problem…