Friday, August 21, 2009

Writing Less Efficiently

I'm going to break with my tradition of posting filler on Fridays, and instead I'd like to talk about use of words, specifically repetition of one word versus using synonyms. When I was a wee sprig of a boy in grammar school, one of my teachers claimed that repeating a word in a piece of prose was Bad Writing. For example, if you are writing about a wagon, you should not use the word "wagon" twice in the same sentence, or paragraph, or on the same page even. Instead of repetition, writers are supposed to follow the rule of "Elegant Variation," where you find synonyms for "wagon" and use those instead, or recast sentences to avoid naming the object in question. I heard this advice later on in college, and I've read it in books about writing, too. I know professional editors who also believe this is a good rule to follow. My opinion?

In a lot of instances, this rule is complete and utter bullshit. There, I've said it. Now I'll give an example of what I mean.

In researching this post, I ran across the article How to Write Less Efficiently, by Arthur A. Stern, The English Journal © 1967. I quote his wonderful article in part:

"The student comes away with the impression that repeating words and phrases is a Bad Thing. His writing, accordingly, may be dreary, ineffective, and unnecessarily hard to read. Let us see what might have happened if Abraham Lincoln had received such advice and taken it seriously. Lincoln is reported to have said

It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all the time.

We perceive immediately that Mr. Lincoln has succeeded rather poorly in avoiding repetition. No matter. We shall repair his rhetoric by using synonyms and pronouns as the handbooks recommend:

It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even deceive some of them on every occasion; but it is not always possible to trick everyone.

There. Doesn't the style sound familiar?"

Pardon me while I laugh again, because I find stuff like this to be hi-sterical. Okay, I'm done now.

Here's the thing: it is perfectly acceptable to use the same word to describe something as often as you need to. Why? Because sometimes, there is only one perfect word for that thing (object, action or whatever). Use it. The goal is to communicate your meaning to your reader, not to show that you own a thesaurus. While editors and writers are noticing that you've repeated yourself, your reader will be taking note of the point you're making, so You Win.

Here's a fine example of repetition, from D.H. Lawrence:

She remembered to have hated her father’s overbearing manner towards her gentle, humorous, kindly-souled mother. She remembered running over the breakwater at Sheerness and finding the boat. She remembered to have been petted and flattered by all the men when she had gone to the dockyard, for she was a delicate, rather proud child. She remembered the funny old mistress, whose assistant she had become, whom she had loved to help in the private school.

Note: unless you are deliberately repeating a sentence structure for effect, it's best not to begin sentences with the same word over and over. You fall into a repetitive rhythm which might lull your reader to sleep. All the usual caveats about that, too, of course.

Another good example of repetition is the "honorable men" speech from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

Are you writing about an emotion, like guilt? You can refer to guilt with the word "guilt." You don't have to find absurd synonyms for it like "the miasma of regret" or "the rusting-through of my soul" or whatever. Please don't. Please, I beg of you. Don't. I'll come to your house and hit you. Hard.

Let's talk about dialogue tags, where this sort of thing rears its amazingly ugly head too often. If you find yourself writing, for example,

"...I said to the tall, handsome stranger"


"...I said to the red-haired dwarf"

instead of

"...I said to him"


"...I said to [Name of Character]"

then take a moment, take a breath, and calm down. You don't need to do this. First, you can probably cut every instance of "to [X]" after "...I said." Really, give it a try and see what happens. Clarity of prose, I'm betting. Second, you can probably eliminate about half your dialogue tags without losing your reader. Every line of speech does not require tagging. Your readers are bright. Third, those awkward descriptive tags that avoid pronouns or the character name are, well, awkward and frankly not a little silly. You look silly when you use them. Are you writing a comedy in a comic style? No? Then knock it off.

The thing to remember about synonyms, which is a thing that makes our language (no matter what your native tongue) so immensely fabulous and fun to play with, is that they are Not Direct Substitutes. Hot, sweltering, steamy, warm and blistering all have to do with heat, but they do Not All Mean Exactly The Same Thing. If you use that thesaurus, use your dictionary too. Nothing's worse than using a word that doesn't mean what you think it means. People will roll their eyes and say nasty things about you behind your back. Sometimes in front of you, too. So realize that there are shades of meaning in all of these words, and you should pick the word that best reflects what you mean in your writing. I suggest leaning on that word as much as you have to and leaving your thesaurus alone. See if your prose isn't clearer and more easily understood.

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  1. I think that for the most part, you do want to avoid repetition. Use repetition when it provides a unique cadence to a passage, or where a variation of the word changes the implication of what you intend to say. Synonyms often have close, but not exact meanings.

    I am not a lawyer, but I have drafted my fair share of legal clauses for contracts. Repetition is almost required in that medium because of the clarity provided.

    It all depends on the point you are trying to make and the style with which you make it.

  2. The Lincoln eg is excellent! Whenever Something is said to be Bad, period, I start getting suspicious. Maybe it resulted from my earlier self, who would follow any rule that was thrown at me. I found out, over the years, that a lot of such Rules are just suggestions; and some of them are *bad* suggestions at that.

    There I've used suggestion twice in a sentence.

    You're right, of course, using repetition or not is a deliberate choice based on more than just one criterion. If you use it for a specific purpose and you succeed: great! If you're doing it out of ignorance: not so great.

    Thanks for putting it so well, and on a Friday too.

  3. "The goal is to communicate your meaning to your reader, not to show that you own a thesaurus."


    What I love about the Lit Lab is how you are taking a hard look at all these "writing" rules and applying them to real-life writing experience to decide if they're true or not. It's very refreshing, compared to the dozens of blogs that are repeating (not the good kind, in this case) all the same tips.

    I love me a good book on writing, but maybe there are so many rules because writers discovered long ago that how-to-write books were a great market.

  4. Great post! I recently read a short book on meaningful sentences and it agreed with you. Repetition can be used as an effective way to get your point across.

  5. Scott, thanks for bringing this up. This is a problem I face a lot. To me, repetition IS awkward sounding a lot of the time. The examples you bring up here are working because there is a parallelism at play. I'm, unfortunately, not that graceful sometimes when I deal with repeated words. At the same time, using a synonym, to me, often screams of "literary device," which is far worse than just sounding a little clunky. I repeat things so much that I've gotten compliments on it. "I love how you kept using the same phrase over and over. You created this rhythm." So, sometimes I try to embrace my natural tendencies, but other times I gnaw on my ear with frustration.

  6. Davin: Yeah, I didn't want to get into parallel structures, because it's Filler Friday after all.

    I didn't see a lot of repetition in "Rooster," and what there was of it was cool and rhythmic. You know in my ms I like to see how many different meanings a single word has and try to use all of them in the same conversation, passing the word back and forth between characters. I stole that technique from Shakespeare. Fun times for Scott!

    Rick is right that for the most part, probably, we want to avoid repetition. But when we're using awkward synonyms and losing the meaning of the passage, the repetition is better. Or, you know, the synonyms might be a sign that we're using the same sentence structure over and over again, and we should look at that.

    But repetition, in and of itself, is not bad. No, it's not. Don't make me turn this car around.

  7. This post cracked me up--it's just so true! I occasionally use repetition in a paragraph as a style choice, and then it always gets the red pencil :P.

    Great points!

  8. Rick: I think you and I agree, if what you mean to avoid is stuff like this:

    There was a cabinet in the center of the room. The cabinet was tall and rectangular. There was shiny black lacquer on all sides of the cabinet, and when I opened the cabinet doors, I saw another door on the cabinet's back wall. I stepped into the cabinet and opened the inside door.

    Some people will rewrite that as:

    There was a cabinet in the center of the room. The curious object was tall and rectangular. There was shiny black lacquer on all sides of the large box, and when I opened the mysterious thing's doors, I saw another entrance on the strange enclosure's back wall. I stepped into the strange artifact and opened the inside portal.

    That's just bad. The problem with this passage has to do with sentence construction and it should be rewritten. Which is one reason why I think synonyms should be avoided, to more readily expose clumsy passages. The "synonym solution" doesn't actually fix the problem here.

  9. Scott, that was what I was talking about. I never thought of it that way, but you're right. I usually get out of these messes by rearranging the sentence structures. It just wasn't a conscious decision. I tend to use the infinite monkeys approach.

  10. This is such a fabulous post -- thank you, Scott.

  11. I do try to avoid using the same word in the same sentence, but sometimes it can't be avoided. Honestly, I don't think most readers pay attention to this kind of stuff, mostly it's writers and editors. I think by frequently using synonyms you actually run the risk of confusing the reader or slowing them down, neither of which is a good outcome.

    The thing that frustrates me as a newbie fiction writer is that there are so many rules and guidelines to trip us up - few of which seem to apply to brand name authors.

    Just finished reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I enjoyed it, but there is no #$@*&^%@%&&* punctuation! Arghhhh!

  12. Great post. If your books speak with the same wonderful voice heard here, you should do well. I was cracking up the whole way through, imagining a taskmaster by a different name, smacking hands for not allowing repetition through from time to time.

  13. Scott, Interesting comment about The Road! I read it and actually appreciated the lack of punctuation. To me, it looked nicer on the page, and I found that I could follow it pretty easily. It made me question the need to punctuation. Don't you love the differences in opinion?

  14. Eric: Thanks! Sadly, no one in my book says, "Don't make me turn this car around." It's more like this:

    "I am suitably impressed."

    "As impressed as is suitable?"

    "Oh, more than that I am sure."

    And stuff. 16th-century college students larking about in Germany and Denmark, with some casual violence in Poland thrown in for giggles.

  15. Absolutely, Davin. I did get used to it, but the point I was making was that Slush Pile Warriors (like me) seem to have to live by different writing rules than folks like McCarthy, Grisham, etc... I often wonder if some of the big name authors' work would make it out of the slush pile if their names were Shmo.

  16. Scott: I don't know if I believe that "Slush Pile Warriors (like me) seem to have to live by different writing rules than folks like McCarthy, Grisham, etc..." is a true statement. I think that if you write a good book and find the right agent (that's the hard part, but most people don't really try to find the right agent), a unique voice is a good thing. While a lot of middling stuff gets published, a lot of brilliant stuff does as well. It's just not as high profile as the middling stuff. Loving the irony, I am.

  17. Scott, fair enough. I often wonder the same thing. But, the more I hear from more experienced writers, and even the occasional bright agent, is that quality will be recognized, and it's not about following the rules. I think the wisest people will say to use the rules only when they make your writing better. If breaking them leads to better writing, then break them...and trust that the "judges" will see the quality of your writing. Sometimes I think that the rules we put on ourselves are the result of us underestimating our readers.

  18. Feeling a little passionate about this, are you, Scott? It's so nice to get this side of the argument. I agree. I love repetitions, parallel structures, etc. They have great effects. I love your Lincoln example. Priceless.

  19. Depending on how it's used, repetition is good or bad. I use the same sentence structures over and over, but I've also found that mixing up the structures too much makes the prose feel forced and unnatural. It doesn't flow, so repetition can work in that respect if there's a balance.

    Repeating a symbol over and over, and using the same terms to do it, oftentimes doesn't work because that means I'm hammering into the reader's head.

    Repeating something to try and draw attention to it oftentimes doesn't work for me either.

    In the end, I've found that repetition will happen naturally for me, and that I get in trouble when I begin over analyzing things to "fix" the repetition because I've had it drilled into my head that it's bad. Stupid rules and guidelines.

  20. I'm agreeing with most of the comments on here. Repetition sounds awkward to me, but there are definitely times when it's not only ok but needed to make a specific point.

    I can't even tell you how much I've heard, though, "You shouldn't repeat a word (unless it's an article or whatnot) for an entire page!! It's bad writing!!!" haha

  21. I just try not to get too anal about it. If I find that I need to repeat a word, the first thing I reach for is a red pen to see what I can cut out. Sometimes it's just sentence/paragraph structure.

    If I need to repeat, I repeat, repeat, repeat and call it my writing style.


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