2

This is a question that'd been bothering me for a while. Here's an example:

My heart racing, I wriggled to the edge of the bed and fumbled for Travis' hand. Just make sure to hold onto it, he'd said, whenever you get the chance. I searched for a few minutes until I finally found it—smooth and warm, sprawled on the cold surface of the floor. I gave it a light squeeze, but there was no response. Maybe he was asleep after all. Or just pretending to be? The easiest way to find out was to get up and ask him. Yes, that was what I had to do.

But, I didn't.

Funny, I had no problems with the idea of killing myself. But when it came to love, I was a complete coward.

Every time I see repetition like this, I remove it:

My heart racing, I wriggled to the edge of the bed and fumbled for Travis' hand. Just make sure to hold onto it, he'd said, whenever you get the chance. I searched for a few minutes until I finally found it—smooth and warm, sprawled on the cold surface of the floor. I gave it a light squeeze, but there was no response. Maybe he was asleep after all. Or just pretending to be? The easiest way to find out was to get up and ask him. Yes, that was what I had to do.

However, I didn't.

Funny, I had no problems with the idea of killing myself. Yet when it came to love, I was a complete coward.

Am I improving my writing with this? Or just being unnecessarily paranoid?

5

I think it's generally a good idea to be on the lookout for words you use too much, and swap in something else. You should look for repetitive sentence structure and repetitive phrasing as well.

My only suggestion for your example is for the second iteration, I would drop the word altogether, and just write "I didn't." It's more powerful that way.

  • You are totally right. Thanks for the suggestion! – Alexandro Chen Jan 26 '15 at 15:26
2

It's good that you're aware of it - repetition in your own writing can be difficult to notice.

You can get away with repetition as a character trait, but if they're the narrator it's risky. In the example you've posted, there's too much repetition of 'but' in the first, but the second sounds forced.

I agree that you could replace the 'But I didn't' with - 'I didn't'. It's much more curt and has more of an effect on the reader.

In regards to the other two, 'but' works. 'Yet' almost works but sounds a little forced, as if you noticed that you used 'but' too much and needed to change it. The rule I've always gone by is that if I've used the same word more than once in the same paragraph (certain words like 'I' and 'and' not included), I replace it. Your other two instances aren't that close, are in separate paragraphs, and are how someone would speak it.

You could also try reading the section aloud either to yourself or someone you trust - it can help to hear how things sound, especially when it comes to dialogue/first person POV.

2

As Lauren Ipsum's answer states one should be wary of repetitive use of words, phrasings, and sentence structures. Such can easily be seen as poor writing. (Note that this effect might be intentional. For example, repetition in a character's speech or thought could indicate a lack of coherence or clarity, perhaps from distraction, fatigue, idiocy, anxiety, or intoxication.)

However, one must also be careful to avoid replacing an invisible repetition with a discordant alternative. Simple, common words (and sentence structures) often pass unnoticed where a less common form of expression would draw attention to itself. The connotations, tone, or rhythm of a replacement may conflict with the intended mood (e.g., "however" has a more rational connotation drawing the reader away from a sense of emotional conflict in your example text). Such replacements can also give an impression of purple prose (e.g., see this answer referencing the "said" bookism).

Intentional repetition can also be used to link items, to lull the reader, to provide a structural framework to the text, or to establish an expectation.

For example:

The brown brick building had seen better days. The rain was letting up, but as a car coughed past, it splashed a casual insult of brown mud onto the stairs to the apartment. A man in a worn trenchcoat pointlessly pressed down his soaked brown hat, his weathered brown boots trudging up the stairs.

While that might not be great prose, one can see how the repetition of "brown" both adds a sense of weary dullness and links the aged building, the mud (the casual insult), and the man who is doubly "brown", from top to toe. One could imagine a short story with such a beginning (and further less dense repetitions of "brown") might end with a twist on the expected meaning of "brown" like:

The estate lawyer's assistant looked dubiously at the boy who had been playing in the mud. "I was told that someone in this neighborhood could tell me how to find a Mr. Douglas Brown."

Obviously repetition must be handled carefully, especially when used to lull the reader. A dull paragraph might effectively hide a clue in a mystery novel, but a dull chapter would tend to cause the reader to abandon the book.

Consider the effect of the repetition of "but" with a few relatively small changes to your example.

My heart racing, I wriggled to the edge of the bed and fumbled for Travis' hand. Just make sure to hold onto it, he'd said, whenever you get the chance.

I searched for a few minutes until I finally found it—smooth and warm, sprawled on the cold surface of the floor. I gave it a light squeeze, but there was no response.

Maybe he was asleep after all. Or just pretending to be? The easiest way to find out was to get up and ask him. Yes, that was what I had to do; but I didn't.

Funny, I had no problem at all with the idea of killing myself, but I was a complete coward when it came to love.

While using short paragraphs increases the pacing (as appropriate for the character's anxiety), the repetition of "but" for the last clause of three paragraphs intensifies the emotion, almost like a hammer on an anvil: ding, isolation, ding, fear, ding, self-accusation and frustration. The repetition of "but" also intensifies the sense of the character's conflict ("I want, but ... I want, but ... I want, but").

By structuring the paragraphs in this way, there is little ambiguity that the repetition is intentional.

(Side suggestion: You might consider using "My hand searched for a few minutes until it finally found his, smooth and warm". Having the character's hand searching intensifies the focus on the physical contact; replacing the dash with a comma softens the contact, expressing comfort rather than shock in the finding and in the tactile pleasure, perhaps also slightly intensifying the "but" clause by avoiding the earlier abruptness of a dash.)

  • Once again, I'm blown away by your understanding of sentence structure. Thanks! – Alexandro Chen Feb 2 '15 at 4:31
1

Less repetition is a rule of writing. And like all rules they are made to be broken.

"All day, every day, day after day, from dawn till dusk."

This rule can be overused

Benny johnson said "hey buddy how are you today". Ed peterson cried "My dog died, my wife left me and my house burnt down." Benny gasped "Oh gee thats terrible. How did it happen?" Ed confessed "wife found out I was cheating on her, then she burnt down the house and killed the dog." Johnson let out a pained sigh "How did she find out?" Perterson said "The bimbo I was screwing told her after she found out I was married."

Do you see how benny johnson is referred to as benny in the next line, and then johnson in the next one? Authors will do this all the time but personally I find that it confuses the reader. Especially in a book with a high character count.

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