Tag Archives: repetition

Making Words Work

Last night, because I had nothing better to do, I spent some time scanning back over this blog and checking out all my errors. It was a bit like the footage you see on TV of gorillas combing the fleas out of one another’s fur.

Nifty hat, no? I thought so. Image: strivingafterwind.com

Nifty hat, no? I thought so.
Image: strivingafterwind.com

I hissed and cringed my way through clunky sentences, ill-utilised en-dashes, repetitive sentence structure (even, in several cases, repetition of actual words and phrases, perish the thought), sentences so long they threaten to trip over their own hemlines, and a preponderance of commas.

The funny thing is, I know how language works. I know how grammar and punctuation work. Sometimes, though, I write the way I speak, and I get carried away on the wings of thought, and so all my careful training in the art of formal language can get trampled into the dust in my rush to express myself. This doesn’t mean that a reader would have any difficulty understanding what I’m saying; the meaning is there, regardless. However, I know I can do better.

In that spirit, today I thought I’d write a post about ways to make your writing sharper and more effective – in other words, ways to make your words work harder.

Use short(er) sentences

This is something that has only occurred to me in recent times. I used to be the queen of the (allegedly) elegant, multi-claused, welded-together sentence that – like an overpacked suitcase – was asked to carry a lot more weight than was sensible, which normally resulted in an utter collapse of meaning and the tragic loss of several blameless and innocent words. A general rule, I have since learned, is: use shorter sentences for clarity and punch. There’s no use writing a sentence so long that the reader has forgotten how it started by the time it clanks to an end. I’ve now started watching my punctuation, and if I catch myself whacking colons and parentheses into the same sentence, I know I’m in dangerous territory.

Don’t make one sentence do the work of ten

This is (sort of) related to the previous point, but it’s more about narrative flow than punctuation, really. The sort of sentence you want to avoid is one that goes like this:

As Vladimir stood before the full-length, diamond-encrusted, hand-polished mirror, the one his late mother Speranza had been gifted on her wedding day by her one-time lover, Count Guthrum of Thuringia, whom she had spurned in favour of his own dear father the Prince of Esingria, he heard a piercing cry from the linden-laden courtyard outside his leaded crystal window.

Phew. You can practically see the beads of sweat rolling down that sentence’s brow.

The first thing I’d take out is all the needless description. We don’t need to be told that the mirror is full-length and speckled with sparklers in quite the way it’s done here. In fact, it might turn out that we don’t need to know what the mirror looks like at all, unless our pal Vlad sees the reflection of someone being murdered in it, or something like that. The same goes for the linden trees in the courtyard and the leaded crystal window. Descriptive writing is brilliant, and vital, but there is such a thing as describing the wrong thing; not only does it distract the reader but it also makes for confusing images.* If something isn’t necessary, or you’re not planning to turn it into a vital plot point later on, then don’t belabour the description. Adjectives should always be used sparingly, and you really should avoid using lists of them (like ‘full-length, diamond-encrusted, hand-polished’ or ‘leaded crystal’); lists like this are sometimes called ‘stacking adjectives’ and they have the effect of turning off a reader’s brain and making them go instantly to sleep.

Find what’s important in each sentence, and bring that to the fore. What’s important in our example sentence is Vlad hearing the cry from outside, so that should be front and centre, even if you have to turn it into a paragraph:

A piercing cry shattered the morning air. Vladimir dropped his eyes from his reflection and turned just in time to see his guard come bursting into the room.
‘Sire!’ the man cried. ‘Forgive me, but there is trouble in the courtyard. Please come away from the window, and get out of sight!’

All right, so these are useless examples. However, I hope you get what I’m driving at. Cut away the needless stuff, particularly encrustations of pointless description, and get to the action. If someone is dreaming up a sonnet or contemplating the beauty of the morning while the drama is going on, we don’t need to know about it. Focus on the drama.

Just Get Rid of ‘Just’

The same goes for ‘almost’, ‘nearly’, ‘suddenly’ and a host of others.

‘You don’t mean that,’ whispered Sally, tears almost springing to her eyes.

Either the tears sprang, or they didn’t. Try to avoid using ‘almost’, in this sense at least. Adverbs (more often than not, words ending in ‘-ly’) can usually be removed, too. In short, you can sum this up as: be decisive with your writing. Your characters either do or feel or say something, or they don’t. If they go around almost or nearly doing things, it gets irritating fast.

I do this myself, all the time. All the time. I normally run a ‘Find and Replace’ function when I’ve written something in an attempt to remove all my useless adverbs. It’s such an easy trap to fall into.

Don’t say the same thing over and over and over

This doesn’t just go for repeating the same words, but also repeating the same sentence structure or the same (or similar) images. I sometimes can’t believe how easy this is to do, and how many people fall foul of it. I always think of it as being ‘Drunken Scarecrow’ syndrome, after Adrian Mole’s famous poem Spring, where he uses the phrase repeatedly. It’s also a good idea to mix up your sentence structure. If you use a long sentence that trickles on for a bit before coming to a pause around a comma, then don’t use that structure for the next sentence. Make the next one short and snappy.

Repetition is such an easy thing to do. It’s difficult to spot it and watch for it, but once you get the hang of removing it you’ll find it improves your writing no end.

So, I hope these observations will be useful to you. I’m sure I’ll keep on falling into these bad habits for the rest of my writing life, but being aware of them is the first weapon in the armoury, isn’t it? Writing is a craft, and I’m only just beginning to figure it out.


*Unless, of course, you’re cunningly preparing a Red Herring; if this is what you’re doing, then by all means proceed.

Good Idea Bad Idea

If, having read the title of today’s blog post, you’re now thinking of the Animaniacs, all I can do is apologise. Or, I suppose, say ‘you’re welcome’, depending on your opinion of the aforementioned ‘lovable’ creatures. If you have no idea who or what the Animaniacs are, don’t worry. It shouldn’t impede your enjoyment of the post.

Anyway. On with the show!

Image: mysobersunday.wordpress.com

Image: mysobersunday.wordpress.com

So, me blogging about ideas is nothing new – have a look here if you’d like a blast from the past – but today I’d like to think about the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ideas, in the hope it’ll save someone, somewhere, a bit of time and energy.

Of course, I have to start out by saying it’s important to be constantly on the lookout for new ideas. I’m also now having second thoughts about whether it’s helpful to classify ideas into ‘good’ or ‘bad’; in essence, all ideas are ‘good’ ideas. Perhaps it’s better to describe them as ‘mobile’ or ‘stationary’ ideas, in other words ones you can do something with, and ones you cannot. For example, at the weekend I walked into a bookshop – not exactly unexpected – and was immediately struck by something weird. My attention was dragged away from the books, if you can imagine such a thing, by low, throbbing, strange-sounding music which sounded like a chant. I found it very soporific and quite bewitching, and immediately an idea began to slither into my mind. Just as I was about to grab my phone to start tapping notes into it, I realised a couple of things.

First, I realised that this idea I was having was a bad (or, perhaps, ‘stationary’) one. It was an idea which wasn’t going to go anywhere and wouldn’t ever become the basis for a strong story, and because of this, I put my phone away and let it fade. I also realised that the reason I knew this – that the idea wasn’t a usable one, I mean – was because it was based on a movie I’d seen, years ago. As I kept thinking about it, scenes from the movie actually started playing inside my head. I had forgotten the movie when I’d first heard the music in the bookshop, and the primal power of the idea behind it had grabbed my brain. When I’d thought about it, however, the truth became apparent – this idea wouldn’t work not because it was a ‘bad’ idea necessarily, but because it was a ‘stationary’ one; it had been used before, and not by me. I still remember the sensation of walking into the shop and feeling like I was walking into a spell because the music was so strange and enticing (it turned out to be Leonard Cohen, fact fans, just being played at such a low volume that I didn’t recognise it for several long minutes); that sensation, that feeling, may well end up being used in a story of mine. But the main idea – a boy being bewitched in a strange old bookshop and being sucked into a story and/or a story coming to life – is, I realised, somewhat of a cross between ‘The Never-Ending Story’ and ‘Inkheart.’ Unless something else occurs to me, something completely new and unique which I can weave into this basic idea, then this particular story seed is going to remain dormant.

I mean, come on. How would I ever top this? Image: sufirangga.blogspot.com

I mean, come on. How would I ever top this?
Image: sufirangga.blogspot.com

It’s important, I think, when you feel the rush of inspiration wash over you, not to always go with the first idea that comes to you. Chances are, you see, that the ‘idea’ is not your own. Our brains are filled with all the things we love, all the time – all our favourite books, movies and TV shows, the stories which have shaped our lives. They are at our fingerprints as readily as our memories are, and you mightn’t even realise that this is true until you start trying to map and keep track of your own ideas. If you don’t encourage your brain to have second and third and fourth thoughts about the inspirational things you encounter every day, you may run the risk of repeating ideas that have already been had, either by you or (more likely) someone else. There is so much newness and wonder out there, so many ideas ready to be discovered, that it would be a shame to use and re-use the same bunch time and time again.

It’s important to say, too (particularly in light of yesterday’s blog post), that every idea a person has is going to vary slightly from any idea that has gone before. Everyone will sprinkle a little newness over any idea they have, and that’s wonderful. Sometimes, however, you’re going to have an idea and you’ll be really enthusiastic about it and you’ll have a whole story arc planned out – and then it’ll strike you. ‘Oh yeah,’ you’ll say to yourself, sadly. ‘That’s the plot of ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, isn’t it? More or less?’ Then, you might have to take your story and chuck the whole thing out, and that would be a shame. Particularly if you’ve been working on it for a while and you have lots of words written.

Not that I know from personal experience, or anything. I’m just using my imagination here, trying to picture how it must feel to realise, too late, that an idea isn’t really yours. Of course.

'Oh, really? That sounds highly illogical to me.' Image: pipeschool.blogspot.com

‘Oh, really? That sounds highly illogical to me.’
Image: pipeschool.blogspot.com

If the idea of having an idea that’s inspired by another work of art doesn’t bother you too much – and perhaps it shouldn’t, really, because that’s what a culture is about, after all, works of art influencing and reflecting one another, to an extent – then think about this: if you always go with the first idea to strike you, then you might risk writing stories full of clichés and overused tropes. If it’s the first thing to strike you, chances are it’ll be the first thing to strike most people. And who wants to be just like everyone else?

One final caveat: this post is, like all my posts, based entirely on my own experience. I’d love to hear another take on this, particularly if you fancy telling me I’m talking a load of old rubbish. What are your thoughts about ideas, inspiration, and popular culture?