Subliminal Repetition in Writing
“He did this already.”
“She just said that.”
"This has already been mentioned."
“This comes up a lot. Why?”
These are notes I have written on many manuscripts, because the habit of repetition seems to be a common subconscious ailment for writers. Many writers know they’re too verbose with their prose, and need to tone down the volume of their descriptive sections, or make their dialogue more concise. But do you know that many writers unwittingly repeat themselves in their writing?
Repetition can come either through dialogue or narrative, and it’s often one of the more difficult elements to spot when editing your own work. Here's an example:
But what a fine day it was indeed, with the sun shining and a slight breeze rippling through the blades of grass. Julia was skip-skip-skipping down the lane, and although she seemed to be the very picture of an idyllic childhood, with her yellow dress and blue bow, her mind was somewhere else, which was somewhere much darker. She passed the butcher shop and the haberdashery, still skipping as she went. Her saddle shoes clipped along the cobblestones as she traveled through the heart of town, and she smiled at the passersby who knew her parents and would likely mention seeing her later. Rounding the bend toward her auntie’s house, she saw the glints of dew and heard the warbler’s song – but her mind was unsettled. Her aunt’s house grew larger as she continued, and soon she could see Aunt Ellen in the sitting room window, rocking slowly in her chair. Julia nailed her lips into a faux smile to hide the preoccupation of her mind, and she climbed the porch steps to knock on the door.
In this sample, we, the readers, are notified that something unpleasant is on Julia’s mind three times. Three in one paragraph! Having not written this yourself and also having already been introduced to what you’re looking for, these instances of repetition seem to jump right off the page. But why do we do this as writers?
-The most common cause of unnecessary repetition in writing is distrust in the reader, or insecurity in the writer. Many writers worry that the reader will not understand the story, or will somehow glaze over the important bits he or she needs to pay attention to. In an effort to “help” the reader, they figure they will just leave more breadcrumbs. Or, writers are worried that they themselves are not clear enough, and that it will be their fault if the reader passes by an important point. In the example above, it’s made clear in the first mention that something about this child skipping down the road is not what it seems. There is no ambiguity or sly implication – it’s stated plainly there on the page. So there’s no need to worry! If you are being clear, your readers will understand. It often takes a bit of personal practice to learn to trust your reader’s intelligence and your own ability to explain what’s in your mind, but it’s a worthy endeavor.
-Sometimes we realize that our first attempt at explaining something was perhaps too small or vague. So in order to bolster our point, we say it again. Instead of repetition, could you alter the first mention to be more clear, or stronger?
-In the story of Julia, it might also be possible that the writer was trying to build suspense or intrigue. Repetition is not necessarily a poor way to do this, but a writer must be careful to find the balance between too subtle (such that the reader’s emotions are not building) and overdone (such that the writing is affected).
-It’s no secret that writers often get stuck in the creative process. In order to free ourselves, sometimes we try to “write ourselves into the story.” In this example story, this seems as though it could definitely be the very beginning of a book, or maybe a new chapter or new character introduction. Let’s say the writer knows the beginning plot point of this section is that Julia is going to poison her Aunt Ellen, but is unsure exactly of how to get the momentum going. Beginnings and hooks are difficult to write, so he may have just started writing things down, working himself over this speedbump until he got to a place where the story was able to flow. When we write like this, we often repeat the few things that we know concretely about the character in front of us. This is an attempt to try and kickstart our creative motors and get the story rolling. This is by no means a bad way of writing – at times it’s very necessary. The key is to go back during editing and scrub those fits and starts from the manuscript.
-Sometimes as we’re writing, we’ll see something very vividly in our minds, or will feel a strong emotional attachment to a particular moment, character, line of dialogue, etc. Our personal emotions about these elements sometimes find their way into the story through repetition. For example, if the author of Julia’s story had a very intense mental picture of what the dark clouds in Julia’s mind looked like, he may have subliminally written them into the story more strongly because they feel very strong to him. This can also happen if we get caught up in the mood of our own writing (which is a good thing!). If we’re writing a scene that gives our own emotions a boost or that excites us, we start writing faster and more urgently, and sometimes that excitement comes out as repetition of thoughts.
Here’s the example of Julia’s story again, having been edited by a Hickory editor:
But what a fine day it was, with the sun shining and a slight breeze rippling through the blades of grass. Julia was skipping down the lane, and although she seemed to be the very picture of an idyllic childhood, with her yellow dress and blue bow, her mind was somewhere else – somewhere much darker. She passed the butcher shop and the haberdashery, her saddle shoes clipping along the cobblestones. As she traveled through the heart of town, she made sure to smile at the passersby who knew her parents. Rounding the bend toward her auntie’s house, she noticed the glints of dew and heard the warbler’s song. Her aunt’s house grew larger as she continued, and soon she could see Aunt Ellen in the sitting room window, rocking slowly in her chair. Julia climbed the porch steps and nailed her lips into a faux smile. She knocked on the door.
So how do you avoid repetition? You don’t, really. There’s no method or system or graph or grid or mnemonic device that will fix repetition, and finding too many mentions of something in your writing does not make you a bad writer. Most writers develop an awareness of their own habits the more they write, and this often helps to eliminate problems before they reach the editing phase. But for those issues that do always seem to slip through the cracks, you have Hickory.