Hello, readers –

Today, I would like to talk about the Frankenstein manuscript’s prettier and more socially-acceptable cousin, self-plagiarized repetition. Where the Frankenstein manuscript varies substantially as pages pass, the self-plagiarized text becomes redundant: scenery described the same way, for instance, or a clever line of dialogue repeated in Chapters 2, 5, and 16.

I chose to bring this up on the day of the State of the Union address self-consciously, because nowhere is the practice of self-plagiarization more prevalent than in the garden-variety political speech. Tell me – do you think people would remember that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream if he had said it only ONCE in his famous March on Washington speech?

There’s a good reason: the repetition of an idea makes it memorable. The ideas – and usually even the actual phrases – of the beginning of a political speech invariably recur throughout. And, as anyone who has listened to two consecutive State of the Union addresses can tell you, political speeches often sound the same from year to year. No matter how fiercely THE WEST WING has tried to promote the notion of presidential speechwriters as ultra-creative writers, if you look at speeches given by the same politician over time, self-plagiarization is rife.

On paper, phrase repetition is problematic, but in and of itself, it is not necessarily self-plagiarization. On paper, phrase repetition can be used for emphasis (as I have just done here). A lot of good writers choose to repeat phrases within a single paragraph for rhythmic reasons, which can bring a passage an invocative feel. Take the
St. Crispin’s Day speech from HENRY V, for instance: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”

Now THAT’s a political speech.

Unfortunately, a lot of poor writers favor this device, too, so it tends to be a rather risky trick to try to pull off in a short piece, such as a synopsis, or even in the first few pages of a manuscript submitted for a contest or as part of a query packet. To professional eyes, trained to search for the repetition of a single verb within a paragraph as evidence of boring writing, “we few, we happy few” will not necessarily jump off the page for its rhythm. In an ultra-quick reading (as virtually all professional readings are), it may be mistaken for an incomplete edit: you meant to change “we few” to “we happy few,” but you forgot to delete the words you did not want.

Self-plagiarization tends to raise red flags with professional readers, too. The writer may not realize that she has reused a particularly spectacular image from Ch. 1 in Ch. 3, but believe me, if there is repetition, professional readers will catch it. Editors are notorious for remembering entire pages verbatim. I am no exception: when I was teaching at the University of Washington, I was known for noticing when term papers resubmitted in subsequent quarters, even though I read literally hundreds of papers per term. I would even remember who wrote the original.

Although it may earn you an ill-humored rebuke from a professional reader, such repetition usually will not knock you out of consideration if the self-plagiarized bits occur far apart, such as at the beginning and end of a book. However, in a shorter piece, or in those first 50 pages of your novel that nice agent asked you to send for consideration, it can cost you. Repetition sticks in the professional reader’s craw, nagging at her psyche like a pebble in a shoe, so it is best to do it as little as possible.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there grumbling. “Oscar Wilde repeated the same quips in one play after another. It became his trademark, in fact. So why should I be punished for using a single particularly sterling line 150 pages apart in my novel?”

Quite true. And Aaron Sorkin reused not only lines and speeches from SPORTS NIGHTin THE WEST WING (my pet repetition of the evening, apparently), but entire plot lines and basic characters. Tell you what – after you make it big, I give you permission to establish a trademark phrase and use it as often as you like. Until you do – as I sincerely hope you will – all I can do is tell you what tends to annoy agents, editors, and contest judges.

All writers of book-length works have repeated themselves at one time or another; if a simile struck us as the height of cleverness last week, chances are good that we will like it next week as well. Each time we use it, it may seem fresh to us. These little forays into self-indulgence are so common, in fact, that literary critics have a name for them: tropes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious troper in his short stories. If memory serves, a thwarted heroine’s sobbing out (usually with her face hidden by her hair), “I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?” immediately before she does something self-immolatingly stupid to remove herself from the possibility of marrying the story’s protagonist occurs at least four times throughout his collected works. Why our Scott found that line so very attractive remains a mystery eternal – it’s hard to believe he ever actually heard a human female utter it – but he did, and now it’s stuck to his name for all eternity.

Usually, though, self-plagiarization is more subtle. Spread out over an entire text — or as it often appears in the case of successful writers of series, once per book – self-plagiarization may be both innocuous and unintentional on the part of the writer. For example, E.F. Benson, author of two delightful series, the Lucia books and the Dodo books, was evidently extraordinarily fond of using Artic analogies for one person suddenly grown cold to another. As in: “It was as if an iceberg had spoken,” “It was as if the North Pole had spoken,” and “icebergs passing in the North Sea” must speak to one another so.

Now, it’s not a bad analogy, if not a startlingly original one. The problem is, as a Benson enthusiast, I was able to come up with three of them without even pulling his books off the shelf. These repetitions, deliberate or not, stick with the reader, just as surely as repeated phrases stick with the audience of a political speech.

Here, yet again, is an awfully good reason to read your entire book (or requested chapters, or contest submission) out loud before you submit it. Believe it or not, just as dialogue that seemed fine on the page can suddenly seem stilted when spoken aloud, phrases, sentences, and images that your eye might not catch as repetitious are often quite obvious to the ear. (Another good reason to read aloud: to make sure that each of your major characters speaks in a different cadence. Much more readable that way. As are lines of dialogue that can actually be said in a single breath without passing out.)

Oh, and now I see that I got so carried away with my topic, I’ve missed the first half-hour of the State of the Union speech, and shall have to catch the rebroadcast. Oh, I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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