Literary tics: repetition in writing

by Nancy Butts

You know how annoying it is when you’re trying to read and your eyelid keeps twitching? The medical term for an involuntary muscle spasm like this is tic; we’re all plagued with them at one time or another.

© Photo by Nancy Butts

© Photo by Nancy Butts

Writers often suffer from what I call literary tics. Without realizing it, we “twitch” with words, repeating ourselves over and over. This verbal kind of tic can be just as annoying to our readers as the muscular kind.

The simplest kind of literary tic is repetition of a word. When I was going through the revision process on my second novel, The Door in the Lake, my exasperated editor told me to do a search for the word “just.” To my everlasting mortification, I discovered that I had used it a total of fourteen times in just four-and-a-half pages.

That’s some tic.

Repetition can extend beyond single words, however. In the excellent book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, authors Renni Browne and Dave King explain, “Most authors already know how to edit out places where they have literally repeated a word or phrase. But the repetition of an effect can be just as problematic.”

What do they mean by effect? A writer can repeat a certain kind of sentence structure, for example. I’ve had more than one student fall in love with participial phrases.

She raced out the door, slinging her backpack over her shoulder.

In this sentence, slinging starts the participial phrase. These phrases can be quite useful to a writer. They allow you to write more fluidly and gracefully about a series of actions that a character takes, without resorting to the choppier “and then she did this” sentence construction. There is nothing wrong with using participial phrases—as long as you don’t use them in every sentence.

Fragments are another kind of construction with which writers tend to fall in love. Though fragments are grammatical errors, they do reflect the way that people think or speak, especially in the heat of emotion. For that reason, it works for writers to use them once in a while.

But if you abuse fragments, readers may start to resent or even ridicule the literary tic. I happen to like Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny’s series of novels about Inspector Gamache, but after a few books I noticed that she had begun to use sentence fragments. A lot. In every paragraph. Of every scene. In all her books. [And yes, I’m using sentence fragments on purpose here.] I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Many readers, fans and non-fans alike, started writing their Amazon reviews of her books in sentence fragments themselves. Ouch.

You don’t want that to happen to you.

You can even overuse punctuation. I often tease my students that I’m going to enroll them in a 12-step program for exclamation mark addicts, they use them so much. One student whom I’ll never forget placed an exclamation mark at the end of every single sentence in a story. !!!

© Photo by Nancy Butts

© Photo by Nancy Butts

There are all kinds of narrative techniques that you can repeat too often and turn into a literary tic. Characters have to eat, right? Well, one of my clients has all her characters in all her books eat healthy meals: all the time. This is obviously because my client herself is careful about what she eats, which is great. But it doesn’t make sense that every character would also eat the way she does. In both a middle grade fantasy and an adult novel that we worked on together, there were numerous scenes in which the characters not only ate salad, they ate the exact same kind of salad: freshly-harvested garden greens dressed with olive oil.

Really? I don’t think so. Each character in a book needs to be distinctive, and the foods they eat are one of the many ways a writer can show this.

My client has a great sense of humor and laughed when I pointed this out to her. She was grateful, because she hadn’t noticed this in her own proofreading. That’s what’s so sneaky about literary tics: often we aren’t aware of them ourselves.

Brown and King point out in Self-Editing that you can also repeat a plot event, thematic idea, or character. Do you really need for the superhero in your action/adventure book to have two characters, both of whom function as sidekicks? In a detective series, do you really want the girlfriend, wife, child, or best friend to always end up in jeopardy from the villain du jour? This kind of repetition is what gets a book labeled as formulaic.

But wait a minute, you say. Writers are allowed, even expected, to repeat certain elements in their books. What’s the difference between a literary trademark like this and a tic?

Like so much else in writing, this is a judgment call. Each reader has his or her own threshold for repetition. One reader may love the fact that Stephen King uses so many brand names in his books; another reader may lampoon the fact that King’s characters never just wears jeans and sneakers, they wear Levis and Nikes.

My sense is that when any literary technique stops being invisible, and rises to the point where readers notice that you’re using it, you’ve crossed the line from trademark to tic. You’ve stopped entertaining readers and have started distracting them, forcibly yanking them out of the story world you have worked so hard to create and reminded them that, “Oh, right, I’m reading a book.” And you never want to do that.

© Photo by Nancy Butts

© Photo by Nancy Butts

Another one of my students was working on a middle grade novel set just before the Civil War. Her literary tic was onomatopoeia: those phonetically-spelled words that we use to represent sounds. As little children, we delight in these: meow, moo, woof, etc. This student, however, went beyond that. On every page there were would be two or three onomatopoeic words. She couldn’t resist describing the sound that everything in the book made: not just animals, but inanimate objects such as pots and doors, and natural forces such as wind and rain.

It got to the point where I christened it the “Batman effect”—you know, as in comic books where there are speech bubbles everywhere with words like “Bam!” and “Crash!” and “Pow!” in them.

It’s interesting that even after I pointed this out to her, and she made a concerted effort to remove the words, they still cropped up in her manuscript. That’s how deeply-rooted such literary tics can be; it’s almost as if one half of our brain doesn’t know what the other is doing.

What can you do to cure your literary tics? Awareness is the first step. Once you know that repetition is an issue, you can be on the lookout for your own tics when you proofread your work.

Even then you may miss them however. This is the kind of problem to which we can be oddly blind in our work. I think the best solution is to find a trusted reader to proofread for you—someone who isn’t afraid to take out her yellow highlighter and ruthlessly mark all the tics in your manuscripts, from individual words to literary techniques. It may be painful, but in the end, you’ll thank them for it.

[© 2013 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]

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