Vary your word choices!

That ripple of titters you hear out there in the cosmos, dear readers, is the sound of every soul for whom I have ever critiqued a manuscript guffawing: the title of today’s post is something that I have been scrawling in the margins of manuscripts authored by writers living and dead since I first started proofing galleys in my early adolescence. Today’s piece of self-editing advice comes deep from the lair of my most fire-breathing editorial pet peeve: repetition.

It is not an uncommon source of annoyance amongst professional readers; as any good line editor can tell you, a tendency to become a trifle miffed in the face of writing that could be better is, while perhaps a handicap in polite society, a positive boon in his line of work. I was, of course, trained to react to it from my cradle: in my family, developing a strong editorial eye was considered only slightly less important than learning to walk; it was simply assumed that the children would grow up to be writers. My parents would not so much as commit my name to a birth certificate without first figuring out how it would look in print.

It’s true. Ask the nurse who kept trying to get them to fill out the paperwork.

I come by my pet peeves honestly, in other words, and believe me, this one gets some exercise, especially now that computer use is practically universal amongst writers.
Why? Word and phrase repetition is substantially harder to catch on a computer screen than in hard copy, even on the great big editor’s model currently gracing my desk. I’ve seen 25-pound Thanksgiving turkeys carried on smaller surfaces, but even so, I prefer to edit on paper. And even then, I still read the final version out loud, to check for flow and repetition problems.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant with me now: NEVER let a submission tumble into a mailbox until after you have read it in its ENTIRETY, in HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. There are manuscript problems that simply cannot be diagnosed any other way.

I had a hard lesson in this truth myself recently, after I had spent a couple of months working on a book proposal. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of trying to market a nonfiction book, a proposal is as nit-picky a document as they come. Rather than demonstrating that the proposed book is interesting and well-written by, say, handing the finished book to editors, the book proposal limits the actual chapters seen to only one or two — and even those come at the end.

What comes first? A lengthy description of what the book is about, why the author is the best current inhabitant of the earth’s surface to write it, and how it is going to blow every other similar book on the market out of the water. The author is expected to name the volumes to be thus trajected into the air specifically, critiquing them with the full knowledge that the editors who worked on them might well be reading the proposal imminently. Next follows a raft of marketing information, identifying the target readership, naming every mortal organization that might conceivably welcome a speaker on the topic, and so forth. After this exercise in tact, the hapless author is expected to come up with entertaining, well-written descriptions of chapters that have not yet seen the light of day.

THEN comes the sample chapter.

In other words, the NF writer has to prove, over the course of 50 or so pages of discussion of matters inherently less interesting than the subject matter of the book itself, that she can write. Piece o’ cake. It is a format in which a typo is both more important and harder to catch — because, let’s face it, the less fascinating a document is, the more the brain wants to skim through it.

By the time I began printing out the 15 copies for submission, I was relatively certain that the proposal was typo-free, so I did not proof it in hard copy. That was not purely an ego-based decision: there were other readers, too. I am writing the book with a very accomplished woman who lives on the other side of the country, in that OTHER Washington, so every draft of every page has flown back and forth electronically dozens of times. My agent (who wrote a great blog post on THE ROAD the other week, by the way. Would I be represented by someone UN-opinionated?) is an excellent line editor in his own right, and he had given feedback on two versions of it. Surely, I was safe.

You can see this coming, can’t you?

So there I am, printing up copy 12. (I like to print all the physical copies of my work that my agents will be circulating, so I can check each page individually. If a photocopier mangles pg. 173, it’s hard to catch.) Out of habit, I read the latest page out of the printer — and realized with horror that for some reason, three lines on page 47 were in 11-point Times New Roman, not 12-point.

It was a difference so subtle that only a professional reader would have caught it — and then only in hard copy. None of the three of us had noticed in the electronic versions, and I have no idea at what point the switch could have occurred, but that typeface change did subconsciously make those lines seem less important. Since it was a page in the middle of the proposal, though, fixing it would require reprinting ten pages of every single copy I had already printed.

Oh, please — was there even a second of viable suspense here? Of course, I reprinted it. I could always use the discarded pages for scratch paper, and then recycle them. Heck, I could even use them to print up a hard copy draft of the next manuscript I’m planning to send to my agent, so I can check for this kind of mistake properly.

My point is, no matter how sharp-eyed you are, or how smart — my proposal had been read numerous times by two people with Ph.D.s AND an agent, recall — you’re better off proofing in hard copy. A fringe benefit: on paper, it is far more apparent when you’re overusing certain words and phrases.

Which brings me back to my pet peeve. Editors hate repetition for a very practical reason: text that repeats a particular word, phrase, or even sentence structure close together is more tiring for the eye to read than writing that mixes it up more.

Why? Well, let me give you an illustration, as well as I can on a computer screen. Try to read through the coming paragraph as quickly as you can:

Without turning in her seat, Mandy suddenly backed the car into the garage. The garage door closed, sealing her and the car inside. The car was warm, cozy, a great place to die. No one would come into the garage for a week, possibly more, and the children never came in here at all. Thinking of the children, Mandy sank back into her seat, the car’s solidity as comforting as a sturdy umbrella in the midst of a sudden downpour. Without thinking, Mandy pushed in the car’s lighter, heating its coils for the benefit of some future cigarette that might never be smoked.

Okay, stop. Notice anything about how your eye moved down the lines? If you’re like most quick readers, your eye tried to jump from the first use of Mandy’s name directly to the next; it’s a very efficient way to skim. If you’re a more sensitive reader, the repetition of “the garage” twice within four words and “the car” twice within five might have led you to skip the next line entirely.

Apart from encouraging skimming — the last thing you want an agency screener to start doing to your work, right? — word and phrase repetition gives a professional reader the impression that the target market for the book in question is not as well-educated than more diverse set of word choices would indicate. (This is true, incidentally, even if a repeated word is polysyllabic, although to a lesser extent.) The more literary your writing, the more problematic such a perception can be.

The average adult novel is aimed at roughly a tenth-grade reading level; literary fiction tends to assume a college-educated reader, and uses vocabulary accordingly. So whenever you see those ubiquitous Mark Twain and Somerset Maugham quotes about never using a complex word when a simple word will do, realize that both wrote for audiences that had not, by and large, shifted the tassel on a mortarboard cap.

There is yet another reason to avoid word and phrase repetition whenever possible: it tends to slow down the pace of a scene. Let’s take another look at poor Mandy’s final moments with all of those redundant words removed and replaced with specific details — note how much snappier her trip to meet her Maker is in this version:

Without turning in her seat, Mandy suddenly backed into the garage. The door closed, sealing her inside. The car was warm, cozy, a great place to die. No one would come to this end of the mansion for a week, possibly more, and the children never ventured in here at all. She sank back into the rich leather upholstery, the Mercedes’ solidity as comforting as a sturdy umbrella in the midst of an unexpected downpour. Without thinking, she pushed in the lighter, heating its coils for the benefit of some future cigarette that might never be smoked.

It’s definitely a smoother read, isn’t it, without all of those eye-distracting repeated words? Yet look how many more character-revealing specifics I was able to incorporate — why, Mandy moved up several tax brackets in the second-to-last sentence alone. And although it reads more quickly and comfortably, it’s actually not substantially shorter: the original was 103 words, the revised version 97.

If weeding out repetition in just one paragraph can yield this kind of dramatic result, imagine all of the room you could clear for telling little details if you eliminated similar redundancies throughout an entire manuscript. You might want to print out a copy of your book — perhaps on the back of all that paper I had to discard from my proposal — and try it sometime.

There are, of course, many flavors of redundancy to torment editorial souls. Next time, I shall dive into another very common species that, in its most virulent form, has broken the tension of many an otherwise worthy scene. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS: Congratulations to long-time reader Brian Mercer, who has just sold an article to Llewellyn Publications. Way to go, Brian!

(And please, everybody, remember to keep sending in news of your triumphs, so we can all celebrate. I love reporting good news about my readers’ writing careers!)

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