On Unconscious Repetition in Your Writing
I’ve never felt particularly comfortable giving writing advice. Mostly that’s because while I’ve written all of my life, I’ve really only written in earnest and for the public recently. I guess that boils down to a lack of confidence at times 🙂 However, this post stems directly from a personal experience with my own writing so I feel pretty comfortable sharing the exercise. It was a good friend, talented fellow fantasy writer and beta reader James Tallett (@thefourpartland, TheFourPartLand.com) that pointed out the unconscious repetition in my story. The piece in question was The Clockwork Men from my short story collection Blood and Brass. Here’s what happened (well, mostly).
James: Stop with the repetition!
James: Seriously. Stop it. Now.
Me: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
James: You really need to figure out some new ways to describe your character.
Me: Umm… ok.
James: No, really. You’ve called him “the boy” approximately 9,000 times just in the first 2 pages.
Me: Really? No way!
James: Yup. Go look.
I did go look, and he was right. The character in question was a boy named Aelfgar and the setting was a slaver’s ship after the boy had been abducted (see there? I did it again). I used Word’s handy find feature and low and behold, what do you think I found?
The boy looked.
The boy turned.
Wow! It was everywhere! Let me clarify something here too – this was not my rough draft. I’d read over the story probably five or six times by that point. And I had NEVER caught it. It just goes to show you how when reading your own writing, you’re more likely to see what you THINK you wrote, rather than what you REALLY put on the page (seriously, beta readers are essential).
Was there anything inherently wrong with using “the boy” to describe Aelfgar? No, it was pretty apt. The character IS a boy. However, it ruined the flow of the story at that point, and if it weren’t for James, I would never have noticed. Upon further inspection, the repetition carried over throughout the entire story (not just ‘the boy’, but with other monikers too).
You might not have the same problem, but I’m willing to bet that at least a few other writers have struggled with this issue. So, what’s the exercise here? Check your work. Then DOUBLE check it. Then have a beta reader check it.
- Pick a character in your work.
- Figure out how you refer to him/her/it.
- Tear your writing apart to find out exactly the words you use to refer to that character.
How many times do you say “he”? How often do you call her, “the thief” or “the president” or whatever? Can you improve on those at all? Variety is the spice of life, and there’s always several ways that you can refer to a character without losing your reader. Use Word’s find feature to highlight every instance of that phrase in yellow throughout the story (this works better if you’re looking for something non-generic).
If you don’t have Word, you likely have a similar feature available to you. Use it. A lot. Remember, just because something makes sense in your head, that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to derail the story with mind-numbing repetition. Oh, and get yourself a handful of beta readers.
Walter Shuler is a father, husband and fantasy writer. His debut book Celadonian Tales Vol: 1 Blood and Brass is now available through Amazon.com here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005LST00C and through Smashwords here: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/87076
You can connect with him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/#!/anakronistical
Through Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/hallalitriocht
And check in at his website here: http://hallalitriocht.com/ You’ll find sneak peeks and even some freebies, plus plugs for some other awesome writers (like Thea!).