What was that again? Or, I did not know it then, but a Gila monster was about to come of a clear blue sky and change my life forever


I passed through two different airports today, my friends — more travel on behalf of the Grumpy Relative, who continues to ail, alas — so I can state with authority that metal detectors in at least two states are cranked up farm far past normal levels of scrutiny. How do I know? Because in both airports, rows of busty women were being re-scanned while those with dinner plate-sized belt buckles were waltzing through security.

That’s right, folks: underwires are setting off metal detectors again. I tremble for democracy.

Back to business, now that I’m home again. For the past week or so, I have been talking about ways to self-edit your work in order to pick up the pace. In pursuit of that estimable goal, I went on a tear yesterday about redundancy, particularly word and phrase repetition. And you, bless your persistent souls, bore with me through it.

Today, I shall shift gears a little, to focus on another pet peeve that makes Millicent the agency screener poke her pen through the page where it appears because she just can’t help herself: concept repetition.

Again and again (and again in manuscripts, good narratives get sidetracked by a compulsion to explain what has just occurred, even if the original telling was quite clear, as though the author did not believe that the specifics of an incident, exchange, or character revelation could possibly have conveyed his intention for the scene. Like so:

Herman blanched. “You can’t possibly mean that, Susan. You wouldn’t go to the police.”

“Yeah?” Susan drew herself up to her full seven and a half feet. “Just watch me, Bozo.”

Herman was frightened — really frightened, even more than the time when his ex-wife had threatened to season his veal stew with liberal dashes of arsenic if he repeated that joke about the guy who walked into a bar with a duck on his head just one more time. What if Susan really meant it this time? What would he do? What would he tell the police? More seriously, would the police arrest him on Susan’s word alone? Strange, how the mere fact that she was glaring down at him left him even more frightened.


See the problem here — or rather, the problems? This excerpt utilizes yesterday’s faux pas, word repetition (Herman’s sure frightened a lot, isn’t he? And how many ways does the reader need to be informed that Susan is freakishly tall?). It also, from Millicent’s perspective, adds conceptual insult to literal redundancy by devoting a paragraph to explaining an emotional response that was already clear from blanched in line 1: Herman was scared.

From an editing perspective, that means almost half of the verbiage here could be cut without affecting the meaning of the passage at all. More than half, if the person doing the editing trusted the reader enough to assume that the mere mention of telling the police something implies the possibility of subsequent arrest:

Herman blanched. “You can’t possibly mean that, Susan. You wouldn’t go to the police.”

“Yeah?” Susan drew herself up to her full seven and a half feet. “Just watch me, Bozo.”

What if she really meant it this time? Would the police take her word over his?


Not as much fun as the original version, perhaps, but you must admit that it gets the job done, plot-wise. In a scant 47 words, rather than 126.

Out of context, that may not seem like a significant reclamation of page space, but to an aspiring writer whose magnum opus is 401 pages when his brand-new agent insists that she cannot possibly sell the book if it breaks the infamous 100,000 word barrier (i.e., 400 pages in Times New Roman in standard format), a several-line cut this easy to achieve is going to seem like manna from heaven.

Pop quiz: did you catch the other type of conceptual redundancy that sets professional readers’ teeth on edge in that last paragraph? No? Well, perhaps Millicent’s reaction will help you find it: “Oh, for Pete’s sake! Where ELSE does manna come from?”

Yes, professional readers’ hackles often are that easily raised; remember, these people are trained to read CLOSELY. And since it’s Millicent’s job to narrow down the potential client pool from amongst the many, many submissions her agency receives to a small handful, it’s not uncommon for even a single flash of annoyance to be enough to knock a submission out of the running.

While you’re hyperventilating over that last one, I might as well add: the same holds true of contest entries. If anything, contest judges tend to take umbrage a trifle more quickly than Millicent.

Why the hair-trigger rejection impulse? Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and join in our perennial chorus: because any well-respected literary contest, like any well-established agency, will receive enough perfectly-formatted, well-written manuscripts free of typos, logic problems, and redundancy that those screening them can afford to read with an unforgiving eye. Seldom, if ever, are contest judges, agents, or editors looking for fixer-upper manuscripts; they want something already in excellent shape.

Depressing? Heck, yes — so why am I risking ruining your day by bringing it up? Because an aspiring writer who walks into contest entry prep or submission to an agency aware of these facts is far more likely to succeed than one who does not. If s/he acts upon that information in the revision process, at least.

Everyone with me so far? I’m going to assume that all of that hyperventilating out there indicates a yes.

Which renders this a dandy time to bring up a less common but still worth mentioning type of conceptual redundancy, summarizing what is about to happen BEFORE the scene occurs, often in the dramatic-sounding historical future tense: Little did I know that this was my last day of work or What was to come was still worse, and similar transitional sentiments.

Why is beginning a scene or story with this kind of sentence problematic in a submission? It’s jarring to the editorial eye, because it’s telling the story backwards: conclusion first, followed by how one gets there. It’s hard to build suspense if the reader already knows the outcome, after all. Do it too many times in a row, and the narrative risks yanking the reader out of the story altogether.

Memoirists are particularly fond of this sort of foreshadowing. As in this sterling example:

I had no way of knowing that the events of the next day would shatter my childish innocence forever. When I got up in the morning, the sun seemed to be shining upon me beneficently.

I ambled downstairs to the breakfast nook, as usual, blithely unaware of the horror that was going to befall me before I finished my bowl of cornflakes decorated with fresh strawberries hand-sliced by the kindly soul I knew at the time as Mom. Or was she?

I was soon to find out. “Sit down, Georgie,” she said, pouring milk over my breakfast. “I have something particularly shocking to tell you.”


Enough, already: by now, no reader on the face of God’s green earth is going to find what comes next surprising. The build-up has been too great.

And frankly, totally unnecessary, from an editorial perspective. Like most professional readers, I like to be surprised when childish innocence is shattered — don’t warn me in advance.

And is there really a reader out there who needs to be told that a character got up in the morning to have breakfast? Tell me if it’s the dead of night or 5 pm, but if it’s not, trust me to be able to put two and two together and not come up with the square root of 2,367.

How might a savvy self-editor streamline in this passage to avoid letting the proverbial cat out of the bag about the genuine surprise while not over-explaining the obvious? Hint: virtually any revelation is more startling, not less, if it comes out of a relatively clear blue sky:

When I got up, the sun was shining upon me beneficently. I ambled downstairs to the breakfast nook.

As usual, Mom was decorating my bowl of cornflakes with hand-sliced fresh strawberries. “Sit down, Georgie,” she said, pouring milk over my breakfast. “I have something particularly shocking to tell you. I’m not your mother; in fact, I’m not even human. I’m a Gila monster that attained the ability to speak English through the freak radioactivity accident that claimed the life of your real mother.”


Come on, admit it: you didn’t see that coming, did you?

See a pattern developing in the before versions vs. the after versions? At base, unnecessary narrative summary, before or after the fact, are indicative of writerly insecurity. How so? Well, to a professional reader’s eye, they demonstrate that the writer is having a hard time believing that his target reader can follow the prevailing logic.

In other words, the writer just doesn’t trust the reader’s intelligence, so he explains more than once what is going on, just to be sure. As in:

Shuddering, Hermione turned her back upon the human sacrifice. It offended her sensibilities as a civilized person. Where she came from, people seeking celestial intervention merely scolded God in private for not helping them more swiftly.


I may be leaping to unwarranted conclusions here, but I would assume that the number of potential readers whose sensibilities would NOT be offended by the sight of a human sacrifice is small enough that a contemporary writer might safely regard their critique as negligible. Personally, I am apt to assume that my readers are not given to sacrificing human, goat, or anything else that wiggles, so I would trim this passage accordingly:

Shuddering, Hermione turned her back upon the human sacrifice. Where she came from, people seeking celestial intervention merely scolded God in private for not helping them more swiftly.


Has the passage genuinely lost meaning through this edit? I think not — but it has lost a line of text. And on the day when your agent calls you up and tells you, “The editor says she’ll take the book if you can make it 5,000 words shorter!” you’ll be grateful for every single expendable line.

Sometimes, the author’s mistrust of the reader’s level of comprehension is so severe that she goes so far as to recap a particular set of facts’ importance as if the paragraph in question were in the synopsis, rather than in the text. For example:

“I canb he-ah you vewy wew,” Doris said, wiping her nose for the tenth time. She was prone to allergies that stuffed up her nose and rendered her vision blurry; moving here with her husband, Tad, her two adorable children, Newt (6) and Stephanie (8), and their pet ocelot Rex into a house in the middle of a field of mustard flowers, then, had probably been a poor idea.


While such a paragraph might work very well in a synopsis, serving as an agent or editor’s first introduction to Doris and her family, but in a manuscript, it reads awkwardly. (Don’t believe me? Try reading it out loud.) Since so much information is crammed into so few lines, it does not flow very well, so this passage would be a poor choice for the opening of a novel, or even the beginning lines of a chapter.

Yet if it appeared later in the text, wouldn’t the reader already know that Doris was married, had two children and an ocelot, and had moved recently? Wouldn’t this information be redundant, in fact? And if that weren’t reason enough to do some serious trimming here, as any comedian can tell you, nothing kills a good joke so quickly as too much explanation.

Such global statements pop up in mid-text more often than you might think in submissions, though. To be fair, there’s a reason you probably wouldn’t think it, if you read a fair amount: editors at publishing houses tend to leap upon this particular species of redundancy with all the vim of Rex pouncing upon a nice piece of red meat; as a result, one doesn’t see it much in published books.

All the more reason to excise similar passages from your submissions, I say. Look how much snappier poor Doris’ plight is with the background trimmed:

“I canb he-ah you vewy wew.” Doris wiped her nose for the tenth time, ruing the day she had bought a house in the middle of a field of mustard flowers. It doesn’t matter if the scenery is magnificent when your eyes are too blurry to discern either distant mountains or your own driveway.


Partially, I think, reiterative over-explanation turns up in manuscripts because our ears have been trained by movies and TV to expect a certain amount of conceptual redundancy. Almost any important clue in a screenplay will be repeated at least once, and often more, just in case some poor slob in the audience missed it the first time.

There is a long theatrical tradition of this stripe of redundancy, of course: in ancient Greek drama, a chorus provided frequent recaps of what had happened so far in the play. My college classics professor opined that this handy service, a sort of 5th century BC Cliff Notes, made it easier for spectators to nip out to have compact affairs with temple dancers and their neighbors’ wives; they could always catch up on the plot when they returned.

It’s amazing what one retains from long-ago lectures, isn’t it? You should have heard what he thought those figures cavorting on the sides of vases were doing.

But readers have an important advantages over the audience of a play — or at least they did before TiVo and rewind-able videotapes: books these days are cleverly designed so you may turn pages forward OR backward. Thus, if a reader has forgotten a major fact already mentioned in the text, she can flip back and look for it.

The moral: trusting in your reader’s intelligence — or at any rate her ability to figure out where to find information revealed earlier, even if she cannot recall it in detail — is an important step in becoming an effective self-editor. If your plot requires additional explanation here or there because you’ve moved too swiftly, believe me, an agent or editor will be happy point it out to you.

More tips on weeding out invidious pace-slowers and Millicent-annoyers follow in posts to come. Assume an intelligent and easily-miffed readership for your submissions, folks, and keep up the good work!

One Reply to “What was that again? Or, I did not know it then, but a Gila monster was about to come of a clear blue sky and change my life forever”

  1. Little did I know how surprised I would be when I finished reading and saw there were no comments! I guess I’m the only one with this horrible tendency.

    Thanks for the info about that concept Anne. When I read it, I immediately thought about a line in my novel that definitely needs to change, and it’s much stronger now because of it.

    Still, however, proper punctuation eludes me…

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