Monday, October 3, 2011

3 Ways to Avoid Repeating Words

I was perusing a magazine this weekend and came across this funny Old Spice ad:

Oh dear. Funny, yes, but the copy? You can click the image to enlarge, but here's what it says: "Somewhere in there there's a man in there." Woah! Who forgot to edit that ? And if it was edited, then oh God why? Sounds like whoever wrote that (and, um, edited it, too) forgot the rule of writing that says it sucks to have the same words repeated. Nay, not only sucks--but makes for some crappy, eye-stumbling wordage.

Repeating words too close together (in the same paragraph or sentence) is something I've been called on many times--even recently, so this ad really caught my eye--sadly, for all the wrong reasons. Repeating words is one of those editing things that happens when your eye starts glazing over from reading the same bit of prose repeatedly. Here are some tricks for remedying the problem:

1. Read your story aloud.
This is time-consuming and noisy, but definitely affords you a way of looking at your prose by listening to it. Maybe your ears will tell you what your eyes can't: your words are repetitive.

2. Rest your manuscript.
Perhaps the most annoying thing to do of all is make yourself set your manuscript down for weeks before looking at it again. But truly, how else will you see that you repeated "mangled dog-chum" four times on a page without the refreshed eyes of a six-week vacation?

3. Be careful with the fancy words.
Basically a variation on killing your darlings, you know damn well when you're using words that aren't alll that common--even when they're common. I shall explain. I'm currently reading The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill (a freaking fantastic read, by the way) and he has this paragraph where something is described as "grisly." Grisly is a great word, and not uncommon, but you want to use it with care--you want to use it to show something poarticularly gross, like a decapitated body, especially one your character might have been involved with. Hill used grisly to describe just that, but on the next page at the start of a new chapter, used the word again in a different, lighter context. Say what you want for clever connections, but it didn't work for me. Grisly is one of those words that carries particular emphasis and you want to be careful with ones like that.

I've given three ways to remedy these things. For a great list on all the ways we repeat words in stories, see this post from the Self Editing blog.

Can you think of any more ways to catch these little buggars? Does this problem plague you? I want to hear about it.


La Singe said...

Actually, the problem you mention does bug me. But, what bugs me even more is the ad itself. And there's another one that I saw which depicts a similar guy with a military man inside. Uhm, where is it written that someone who is a little overweight isn't a man? I think the guys who are supposed to be the normal people in these ads are cute! Why would you WANT to look like a greasy rockstar or Contra muscle-head instead of being yourself? Whomever came up with this ad campaign should be ashamed of these images they are trying to portray. And the tag line, "Smell better than yourself." Really? Better? What if those guys smell great through their natural chemistry already? Ugh, it's disgusting to me in so many ways.

La Singe said...

Also, this is something that I noticed in your writing. I see it everywhere, and I wonder if you notice that it's incorrect?

"Grisly is one of those words that carries particular emphasis and you want to be careful with ones like that."

"...ones like that." ?? Couldn't you have said, "...words like that." ?

Is this because of our Valley-Girl generations that have been brought up to use irregular subjects? This isn't really proper English, and it's bothersome to see it so widely used. I'd rather see someone re-use the same adjective than see this craziness. It's right up there with "a whole nother" for me. Nother isn't a word, and ones shouldn't ever be used, especially when the replacement subject word isn't any shorter!


Anonymous said...

you must not understand creative writing.
repetition is often used, even if it's redundant, for comedic purposes
and timing and rhythm.

it's similar but not quite the same as what you attempted to do with "sassy sassafras," but failed at.

good ads don't always use proper grammar.
nor do they follow the MLA style guide.
good ads come from the instincts of a good writer who doesn't follow numbered lists of rules made up by people who can't write.

and if you don't like this,
maybe you're a robot that went to journalism school
where they taught you to be afraid of breaking rules
or you have an english degree from a liberal arts college
that qualifies you to do pretty much nothing at all.

there there there.

La Singe said...

Wow, Anonymous (afraid to back up your words with your name or even a nickname?) must have been mighty offended by your post.

I DO think that Anon is right about breaking writing rules in advertising. Ads don't necessarily have to follow rules. However, the fact that it's a dumbed-down and potentially offensive ad is a fair point. Had the premise of the ad been more well-thought-out, the unfavorable English usage wouldn't have been as blatant or noticeable.

La Singe said...

I mean, wouldn't it have been as effective and less precious had they used, "Somewhere in there is a MAN." or "There's a MAN in there somewhere."?

I don't know, it's just done wrong. Just because this piece of advertising broke the rules, doesn't make it GOOD.

Sierra Godfrey said...

I feel it necessary to point out that this post wasn't really about the ad--this isn't a blog about ad or marketing copy. I used the ad as an example to say that in fiction, repeating words in close sentences is generally frowned upon. The original set of comments from fiction writers (in the Intense Debates comment system) reflected that.

That said, this particular ad does make me stumble when I read it. Any time word arrangements make a reader stop and grapple, it means you've taken attention away from the point, product, or branding of the piece--no matter what type of writing it is.

I'm glad this post has generated so much interest (and hey, maybe Old Spice is glad about that!). It's great to discuss these things. Thanks, guys!

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