Friday, 25 January 2019

Editing repetitions and clichés

The fault of repetition besets all writers. It comes in four forms — the favourite, the oral, the recent and the vivid.

All writers have favourite words or phrases they over-use. One of my own is "little".  I've got wise to this now, but look at this passage from the opening pages of my first novel (and the first book of any kind I wrote for publication), The Hawk & the Dove. I've highlighted "little" in red. Ignore the blue for the moment:

My mother. She was not a pretty woman, and never thought to try and make herself so. She had an uncompromising chin, firm lips, a nose like a hawk’s beak and unnerving grey eyes. Eyes that went straight past the outside of you and into the middle, which meant that you could relax about the torn jersey, the undone shoe laces, the tangled hair and the unwashed hands at the dinner table, but you had to feel very uncomfortable indeed about the stolen sweets, the broken promise, and the unkind way you ran away from a little sister striving to follow you on her short legs. My mother. Often, after tea, she would stand, having cleared away the tea things, at the sink, just looking out of the windows at the seagulls riding the air-currents on the evening sky; her hands still, her work forgotten, a faraway expression in her
Therese and I would do our homework after tea, sitting at the tea-table in the kitchen. The three little ones would play out of doors until the light was failing, and then Mother would call them in, littlest first, and bath them in the lean-to bathroom at the back of the kitchen, brush their hair and clean their teeth, help them on with their nightgowns, and tuck them in to bed.
This was the moment of decision for Therese and me. Ours was a little house in a terrace of shabby houses that clung to a hillside by the sea, and we had only two bedrooms, so all five of us sisters slept in the same room on mattresses side by side on the floor. Mother hated electric light—she said it assaulted the sleepy soul and drove the sandman away, and when the little ones were ready for bed, she would tuck in Mary and Beth, and light the candle and sit down with Cecily, the littlest one, in the low comfortable chair in the corner of the room. If she put them to bed and left them, there would be pandemonium. Cecily would not stay in bed at all and romped gaily about the room, and Beth and Mary would begin to argue, starting with a simple remark like ‘Beth, I can’t get to sleep with you sniffing,’ and finishing with a general commotion of crying and quarrelling.
So Mother resigned herself to stay with them as they fell asleep, and she sat, with the littlest one snuggled on her lap, in the room dimly glowing with candle-light, softly astir with the breathing and sighing and turning over of children settling for the night.

Therese and I, at sixteen and fourteen years old, had to choose between staying alone downstairs to read a book or paint or gaze into the fire; and creeping upstairs with the little ones, to sit with Mother in the candle-light, and listen to her lullabies.

And that was the final published version after my editor had pointed out I over-used the word "little" and I went through the text pruning it out!

When you write, look out for your own favourites and prune heavily. If you self-publish, it can be most helpful to recruit a second pair of eyes to look over the text — it's surprising how oblivious we are to our own predilections.

Repetition based on oral usage crops up frequently in the work of writers who are also preachers or otherwise public speakers. When addressing an audience, repetition is helpful for anything you want to stress — but other forms of emphasis are better for the written word. In the Hawk and the Dove passage above, I've picked out in blue an example of this. If you were telling the story, repeating "eyes" like that would create a heavy footfall on an important point to draw attention to it and linger on it. In written prose, it's merely irritating. I'd have done better to re-phrase "unnerving grey eyes. Eyes that went straight past" simply as "unnerving grey eyes that went straight past".

Then there's the unintended repetition of words or phrases used recently — and again, all writers do this, so a second pair of eyes is almost essential to weed out instances of it.

An example might be:
"I like to wash my hair in gentle shampoo, especially in the summer when my hair gets especially dry."

There, the word "especially" is the unconscious repetition. In editing it, I'd suggest swapping out one of them for "particularly". But notice there's also the prose-clogger of repeating "my hair". For that, I'd suggest either changing "I'd like to wash my hair in," to, "I like to use," or else swapping out the second "my hair" for "it".
So you'd end up with:
"I like to use gentle shampoo, particularly in summer when my hair gets especially dry."

Then there's the repetition of vivid phrases. These are the unusual expressions that stand out and stick in the memory. They do so for the writer as well as the reader, and can lead to unintentional repetition.

An example might be: 
"He had not only helped himself to half the plate of bread and butter and eaten all the coffee cake, but taken a stonking great hunk of the fruit loaf as well."

Two paragraphs further on, or later in the same chapter, or early in the next chapter, you come across something like: "Trying to walk five miles in Wellington boots left her with a stonking great blister on her left heel." Pleased with the unusual turn of phrase, the writer has unintentionally repeated it. God bless the editor who's paying enough attention to spot it.

There are some phrases you can only use once in a lifetime, never mind once a novel.

One of my favourite writers to read and learn from is Raymond Chandler. His style is so sharp and infused with humour, his phraseology so vivid. In his novel Trouble Is My Business, he says:
"But he's in a racket and he knows people. Things can happen a long way off from where Marty is. And Marty is no bath mat. He gets up and walks."

I have treasured that passage for a lifetime — I mean, how brilliant is that? "No bathmat"! It still makes me laugh. But you couldn't use it twice could you?

It's often the vivid and funny turn of phrase that passes from person to person until it fossilises into a cliché. "No pressure!" is a sterling example of that. "For Pete's sake think of something different to say," I mutter as contestant after contestant parrots it on TV competitions. "No pressure, then! No pressure!" Yawn.

One time when I was editing somebody's book of pastoral theology, I came across his observation that organising his congregation was like herding cats. I stopped, and added the margin note, "This phrase was once amusing but has become boring through overuse. Think of an original image." 
He came back with the fresh and delightful phrase "packaging clouds", and the book was better for it.

As well as words and phrases that are overused and unintentionally repeated, there are some you can never say — you have to find ways to walk around it. But let's have a look at those next time, because I expect you have some other things to be getting on with.


Suzan said...

Thank you for your insights. I have edited one book and the man's use of commas drove me insane. This experience taught me to be aware of what is written and said. I often feel I could take back a word after it has slipped out. Everyone has pet words and phrases.

Pen Wilcock said...

Taking back a word — yes! There's also what the French call "mots d'escaliers" (literally, "words on the stairs"), which are the things you only think of later when the chance to say them has gone by, which is the mirror image of the things you let slip out and wish you hadn't!

Buzzfloyd said...

This made me think of two things.

One - I wrote a story once that included the sentence 'Rincewind winced'. I didn't think anything of it until I read it out!

Two - one of my favourite writers is Jim Butcher, specifically his Dresden files series. But he has certain pet words and phrases that are annoying to begin with and then overused. Every single time he wants to say that a character has a deep voice, he describes it as a 'basso voice'. He doesn't vary it with 'deep' or 'low' or even the more normal 'bass'. Who the hell says 'basso' outside of a formal musicological context?! And, re your newer post, he writes sex scenes that are some of the few I can actually stand that feel necessary to the story and an appropriate expression of the character and actually not painful to read - but he can never use the word 'nipples'. He always says 'the tips of her breasts'. Both 'basso' and 'tips of her breasts' occur at least once in almost every book in the series. In some books they occur three or more times. And every time it makes me stop thinking about the story and start thinking about how annoying these writing tics are.

He also has one book which features a dais that is misspelled as 'dias' about a dozen times over a chapter or two. Where was his editor? And why is this such a common mistake? I've even heard people say it that way.

Pen Wilcock said...

Ha! What a brilliant comment! So much to think about. What you said about nipples makes me think of an occasion when, in the interest of broadening my literary education, I made a foray into Mills and Boon style territory. I cannot now remember the title or author I sampled, But I do remember my attention being arrested upon the immortal phrase: "Her nipples went 'spung!' "
Did they, by George?! 'Spung', eh?
My auto-correct doesn't like that word.

Sue said...

Hello. I know this is a full 2 years old now (!) but the phrase regarding the lady's anatomy was actually perpetrated by Robert Heinlein! Lol! The SF Grandmaster, himself.
It comes from 'The Number of the Beast' and is a classic in SF circles. (Mostly quoted accompanied by rather juvenile giggles!)

Pen Wilcock said...

Thank you, Susan. Have you posted this comment in the right place? I cannot find anything to match what you refer to, in this article.