I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (not for kids). Atwood writes with such skill that I’m plunged into awe. I wish I could do what she does. Her prose is poetic, yet nothing about its beauty is difficult. She raises no obstacles of ornateness, and she reminds me that story needs to come first, which comforts me: If I can tell my story straightforwardly, I’m okay.
Here are some prosaic, even mechanical things that I pay attention to when I write and when I revise. The point is to make my prose lively without shifting the focus away from my story.
I vary my sentence beginnings or at least don’t let three sentences in a row start in the same way. Two identical beginnings are acceptable (my rule). When I’m writing in first person I don’t let one sentence after another start with I. However, no rule applies all the time. Sometimes repeating a beginning sets up a beat that I like.
A critique buddy once remarked that I wasn’t avoiding the verb is, which made me self-conscious and worried. I hadn’t considered is before. Is isn’t interesting, but it is unavoidable. Now that my friend pointed out my profligate ising, I’ve been rearranging some sentences to bring more striking verbs into the act. Still, whenever I read is in a string of sentences by an author I like, I think, See, even she or he does it.
In my first submission of Writing Magic, my editor found twenty zillion appearances of the word stuff. I hadn’t noticed, maybe because I like the word, which feels friendly and informal – but I didn’t like it enough to want it to show up seven times on every page. In my latest manuscript for the Disney Fairies series, I wrote “Atop the tabletop.” I didn’t mean to do that. Good thing my editor caught it.
I’m lucky to have editors who are sensitive to word repetition, but I cultivate my own sensitivity, too. Whenever I suspect that I’m overusing a word, I type it in a list above the title of my book. Just before I submit the manuscript, I do a word search on the list. If a word appears too often I consult the thesaurus for alternatives.
On the other hand, in Peter Pan, James M. Barrie repeatedly uses the phrase “of course.” I adore Peter Pan and think Barrie a supple stylist. When I write my books about the fairies of Neverland, I connect them to Barrie by scattering “of course” with abandon.
On the other other hand, in a book about writing (I don’t remember which one), I read that extraordinary words shouldn’t appear more than once or twice in a whole book. For example, I like the word susurration, which means a whispering sound, because it’s onomatopoeic, which means it sounds like what it means. But I wouldn’t use susurration more than once in a book. The reader would notice. The word would draw attention to itself and away from the story.
(Susurration seems to be a noun without a verb form. Webster’s shows no susurrate. Susurrate appears in the OED as rare. How interesting!)
My sentences tend to be short. That’s how I write. That’s my style. See? However, when I remember, I write against type and connect independent clauses with a because or since or so, because I don’t want every sentence to be four words long. Even so, lyrical fifty-word sentences are unusual in my books.
In addition to length, I switch around my sentence structures. For example, I don’t like sentence after sentence consisting of two independent clauses connected by comma and. I prefer short sentences to that. I also dislike a series of this-comma-but-that sentences that, so I use however, though, although, or, better yet, recast the ideas entirely.
This is all a matter of taste. Some writers don’t care about any of these things. When I’m caught up in reading a story, I don’t care either, but when I’m starting a novel or returning to one and I’m not yet hypnotized, I do notice. I get annoyed. I may even ditch the book.
If you want to play around with your own repetition, examine something short that you’ve written. Look for your tics – the words you overuse, your sentence arrangements – and fiddle with them. As you continue to write your longer work, keep these ideas in mind. I don’t suggest you go back if you’re in the middle of a novel. In fact, I believe that would be a bad idea, not at all worth your time. When you finish and revise, however, look for your repetitions and ask your critique pals to look too. Have fun, and save your changes!