Say it Once, Say it Right


Let’s face it. We’re writers because we love words. We love the way they sound and we love the way they roll off our tongues. We love to string them together and give meaning to our existence through them. Words are our babies. And one of the toughest things we must do as professional writers is to weed through our creation and eliminate the words that don’t pull their own weight.

Redundancy is one of the carnal sins of writers. We don’t trust our words to do their job, or we don’t trust our reader to catch our meaning the first time. So we repeat ourselves. Unfortunately, any word that doesn’t add to a story detracts from it.

This doesn’t mean you can’t save your clever words for another use. As an alternative to deleting your favorite groups of words, keep a file on your hard drive titled “Babies.” Whenever you write beautiful prose that just doesn’t fit your story, cut it from your manuscript and move it to this file.

For those little redundancies, the little repetitions (like in this sentence), the best alternative is death. Let’s take a look at an example:

Shelly sat cross-legged on the over-sized sofa. Her life was about to change. She peeked inside the envelope. The letter in the envelope was neatly folded. She took the letter out of the envelope and opened it. She was afraid of what it would say. She was scared that Larry was giving her the brush-off. Her trembling hands held the paper open. With great trepidation, she read the words that would change her life forever. She would never be the same again.

Okay, redundancy irritates us. Did the writer think we were so bored we had nothing better to do than read the same thought over again? Or did the writer just think we were too stupid to catch on to what was happening? My guess is that the writer was trying to slow down the pacing and became lazy.

Regardless of the reason, we, as writers, don’t want to irritate our readers. Therefore, we need to use care in choosing words that best say what we need to say, and then say those words once.

As a writer, you have to trust your words to do their job and trust your reader to do his. So, let’s revisit Shelly’s letter and see what we can do with it:

Shelly sat cross-legged on the over-sized sofa and peeked inside the envelope. She removed the neatly folded letter and opened it. Her hands trembled as she read the words that would change her life forever.

Well—it’s better, but we can see the need to slow the pacing. To do that, we can add one of the following to the paragraph:

  • An action to show her concern: “She wiped her palms on the shirt Larry had given her.”
  • Something to give the depth of her feelings: “She wouldn’t be able to bear life without Larry.”
  • Or the use of other senses: “The letter smelled of Old Spice. Shelly took a deep whiff and imagined Larry sitting next to her, holding her hand, rubbing her knuckles, bringing her fingers to his lips for a soft kiss.”

Redundancy can also come in the form of a single word or phrase. For example, “free gift” or “sum total.” In the original example, it’s the use of the word envelope.

Some writers repeat ideas in a list, such as, “She was tired, worn out, and exhausted.” Wouldn’t just saying she was exhausted serve the purpose? What works even better is saying it with creativity and action, like, “Exhaustion hung to her like possums to their mama.”

Be aware of repetition in your writing. Crisp prose has no room for it. Our text editors can help you identify repetition in your work with our Editing and Critiquing Services.

For additional tips, worksheets, and discussions, order your own copy of the The Plain English Writer’s Workbook.

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