Is There an Echo in Here? Editing Out Repetition

Inspiration can come from the damnedest places, and so today’s editing lesson comes from a rather old inspiration: the Bible. Specifically, the book of Daniel, chapter 3.

You’ve probably heard this one, the story of the three guys who refused to worship a golden idol and were thrown into a blazing furnace but didn’t die because God was down with their loyalty. (Veggie Tales has a pretty fun take on it if you want a refresher–Rack, Shack, and Benny).

But this is an editing lesson, not a Bible lesson. Bear with me here.

If you go read that first link, you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. Daniel Chapter 3 is really repetitive.

  • “the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials” –stated 3 times
  • “the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music” – stated 4 times
  • “Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.” -stated 4 times (one has a different tense, but close enough)
  • “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego”–always listed together, just like that, is repeated 11 times.

To be clear, it’s not that long a chapter. Let’s just say the congregation got pretty restless during the reading. It was like “come ON already, get to the point!”

Shel Silverstein does repetition right. I love “Lazy Jane.”

Repetition has its place–it’s a fantastic way to provide emphasis, and you should certainly have repeating themes throughout your book. Stephen King in On Writing talks about how he specifically went back and added more mentions of blood and blood-related imagery to Carrie to help sneakily prepare the reader for the bloody mess at the end.

But often writers end up a bit more like the book of Daniel, just repeating things for the sake of it. I mean, I don’t think this chapter would have been changed at all had some of those “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego”‘s been changed to “the three men” or, heaven forbid*, “they.”

A lot of the time, our repetitions are smaller: “crutch words.” Every writer has a certain proclivity to use the same word over and over and over and over. (Mine is “actually.” I shudder when I reread my manuscripts and find it everywhere. Bleah.) Another one I see a lot in my editing is “seemingly” or “seemed to.” (For the most part, if something “seems to be,” you can just cut it out entirely…if you’re locked into a character’s perspective, everything they perceive can just be reported.)

The problem with this kind of needless repetition is a) it bores your reader which b) makes them less likely to keep reading. It slows the pace down dramatically, which can kill your pivotal scene. Even if you don’t notice your crutch words, I guarantee the reader will.

Repetition, particularly of “crutch words” because they’re harder to notice when its fresh, is one of those things that justify an editor, or at least a second read after you’ve put it down for awhile. Your grammar and spelling can be perfect, but if you’ve got a bunch of repeated phrases, it’s going to throw the reader out of the flow. But take the time (and, often, money) to get it thoroughly edited, and you’ll cut down, if not outright cut out, a lot of the problematic repetition.



*This is a joke. Get it? Heaven forbid? Bible? I’m hilarious.

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Filed under Editing, writing

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