Over the next few weeks, I’m going to talk about word choices. When writing, each word is significant – or it should be. And the words you use should be used correctly. This first week, I’m going to talk about stutters and redundancies.
Stutters? Isn’t that what a person with a speech impediment does? Yes, but that’s not what we’re concerned with here. When a writer stutters, it means that she or he has used the same major word twice within the same sentence or paragraph, or has started too many sentences or paragraphs the same way, has given all his or her characters names that start with the same letter, or has repeated the same action too many times.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to look for stutters except by careful reading of the manuscript. Consider the following paragraph:
She swiveled her chair around and stared out the wall of windows behind her desk to where the distant mountains beckoned. Her office, a designer’s dream in shades of forest green, cream and gold, reflected the calm strength of the mountains. Potted plants softened the corners and soft environmental music played in the background, all carefully selected to create a sense of calm strength.
The stutters are “mountains” (found in the first and second sentences) and “calm strength” (found in the second and third sentences). While there is technically nothing wrong with the words, the duplication gives them less impact. Consider the same passage with the stutters changed:
She swiveled her chair around and stared out the wall of windows behind her desk to where the distant mountains beckoned. Her office, a designer’s dream in shades of forest green, cream and gold, reflected the calm strength of the view. Potted plants softened the corners and soft environmental music played in the background, all carefully selected to create a sense of peace.
With the stutters removed, the passage is stronger and flows better.
The second type of stutter is beginning multiple sentences or paragraphs the same way, as in:
She strode through the door, her eyes searching the room. She missed him on her first scan, but not the second. She moved through the crowd like a shark slicing its way through a school of fish.
Every sentence begins with “she”. It is boring and detracts from what should be an interesting interlude. This could be alleviated a simple reorganization:
She strode through the door, her eyes searching the room. Her first scan missed him, but not her second. Like a shark slicing its way through a school of fish, she moved through the crowd towards him.
We’ve used the same words, just in a slightly different way. Okay, so the passage isn’t high literature, but it does read better the second way.
This also applies to multiple paragraphs starting the same way. Take a look at your manuscript. Don’t read entire paragraphs, or even sentences. Look only at the first words of each paragraph. Have you used the same words to start too many of them, especially in a row? Can you change the wording so that there are differences?
Another type of stutter is starting all the characters names with the same letter: James, Judy, Joan, etc. Readers will begin to confuse the characters. Vary the names: James, Mary, Darla. In addition to their names, don’t give multiple characters the same traits. In real life, everyone is different, even identical twins. Whether it’s the way they speak, sit, walk, tilt their heads, etc., make your characters unique individuals.
A final type of stutter is limiting all the action to the same area or having all the action the same. Unless you’re writing a short story, or there is a specific reason why all the action takes place in one area, the setting should occasionally change as should what is happening. We can only read so many “he leapt up the stairs” before we start looking at the character as a jumping bean.
Did you see the long-necked giraffe?
Do you see any problems with this sentence? You should have. It’s redundant. All giraffe’s have long necks. It is silly to modify giraffe with “long-necked” – it adds nothing that the reader doesn’t know. Now, if you had a giraffe that had a physical problem and pointed out that he had a short neck – that information would add to the story. Re-iterating what is already known is a redundancy. It is similar to a stutter.
In addition to not modifying descriptive nouns, you should avoid modifying absolutes as in “almost alone”. “Alone” is an absolute word – if there is nobody with you, you are alone. If even one other person is with you, you are no longer alone.
Consider the following redundancies:
Little leprechaun (leprechaun)
Red in color (red)
Each individual (individual)
Free gift (a true gift is free)
very unique (something is either unique or it is not)
slightly impossible (it’s either impossible or not)
Look up at the sky (look at the sky)
Sat down (sat)
Big giant (giant)
8 a.m. in the morning (either 8 a.m. or 8 in the morning)
absolutely perfect (perfect is an absolute)
climbed up the mountain (climbing means going up)
crept slowly (crept)
exactly the same (the same)
nodded his head (nodding is done with the head – nodded)
shrugged his shoulders (shrugged)
tiptoed quietly (tiptoed)
You get the point – at least, I hope so. As with stutters, there is no easy way to find these problems other than by reading the manuscript.
Tip #3: Read your manuscript out loud and listen to yourself. It slows down your reading and makes you pay attention to each word. Better yet, read it into a recorder, then follow the manuscript as you replay the recording. Did you add or delete anything as you read? Mark those passages.