Repeating words


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Thread: Repeating words

  1. #1

    Repeating words

    In Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, you will notice a lot of teeth gnashing, "inexorable" things etc. This, I imagine, is intentional. The tooth gnashing is a subtle biblical reference to Hell and the subtle repetition of the word "inexorable" helps give the book it's tonal potency.

    I'm wondering if any writers here have pulled off something similar, or know (of) anyone else who has.

  2. #2
    Always makes me think of this 37 seconds of hilarity...



    In all seriousness, though, I think it's generally a negative whenever it becomes noticeable.

    In reality, writers repeat words all the time, but some are more 'invisible' than others. Nobody notices a word like 'said' or 'the' or 'they', right? Even common verbs like 'smiled' or 'walked' can be used repeatedly, to an extent. Everyday things. If something happens frequently, one can get away with mentioning it happening frequently too. Because...reality.

    But 'gnashed' or 'chuckled' or 'inexorable' are fairly conspicuous, quite pointy words that carry much more implication within the story and aren't really typical enough to be reused often. How often in a given day do people chuckle? Not that often, maybe once or twice, so a character who chuckles constantly like Old Edward comes across as deranged. Who gnashes teeth?

    The sum effect of this is, best case, that the writer has some kind of weird tic whereby they resort to certain words, certain behaviors and expressions, as fill-in-the-gaps defaults. That may not be a sign of incompetence, but it sure isn't a sign of competence either. The more pressing point is that if a reader is sufficiently disengaged with the story that they are noticing the frequency of the same word being used over and over, there's probably a problem.

    I don't personally buy the idea that repeated use of 'gnashing' is a deliberate biblical reference and find the idea that repeated uses of certain words generally is a good way to form Easter Eggs with things like the Bible to be, uh, a bit iffy.

    For me, Occam's razor says Shelley simply fixated on or liked these words, and her editor either didn't catch it or didn't find it a problem. Nobody's perfect!

  3. #3
    I agree with luckyscars.

    Modern "scholars" read all sorts of nonsense into early fiction. The truth is that those writers didn't have a zillion blogs and How To books to warn them off of unfortunate technique.

    I CAN conceive of rare instances where frequent repetition of a word or phrase could be literary gold. Notice the inclusion of the word "rare". In most instances, repetitive words are the result of inattentive editing. There is no shame in their presence in a first draft, but by the second draft they should be excised.

    As I write novels, over the last three I've taken to reading the last scene or half chapter to my wife. I notice typos and things like repetitive words easily as I read them aloud. They grate. My wife, who does not write, but reads voraciously (much more than I do, and I read a lot) will interrupt me to point them out if I don't notice them first. It isn't uncommon for me to notice a problem in a sentence, stop reading instantly, correct the issue, and start anew reading the sentence to her. I'm able to correct some simple typos as I read without pausing. (Brag alert).

    My biggest shudder in a book or screenplay is coming across the word "amazing". It's been repulsively overworked for at least 20 years. Should an author be allowed to use the word "amazing"? Sure. Once every ten novels or so would be fine.

  4. #4
    The truth is that those writers didn't have a zillion blogs and How To books to warn them off of unfortunate technique.
    Which I kinda like. It has the same effect that small, isolated music movements do, before they get big enough for outsiders to start telling them what they're doing wrong. Not that Shelley 'should' have used the word gnashed as much as she did. But my point is, style tends to be a full package. Warts and all. You cut out the noise, you lose style. That's the point of Black Metal. Raw hatred, tremolo picking and bad electronics. Not everything has to be Black Metal. But some things probably should.

    Literary example? At his best, Lovecraft ascribes to the Black Metal creative theory. Raw terror. The prose itself becomes jumbled, confused, manic. Perhaps indiscernible. That's the point. That's why he can break all the rules and win. Because it's meant to be broken.

    It's four AM, and I can feel the heartbeat of chaos pulsing. Don't follow this theory unless you are under the protection of God. Folks far stronger than us have succumbed to what may come.
    Nail it to the Cross

  5. #5
    Member TheManx's Avatar
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    In workshops etc., I do see the repetition of nodding and head shaking. Way more than people tend to do in real life, I think -- it becomes kind of lazy bit of filler action. I catch myself doing it sometimes...

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by TheManx View Post
    In workshops etc., I do see the repetition of nodding and head shaking. Way more than people tend to do in real life, I think -- it becomes kind of lazy bit of filler action. I catch myself doing it sometimes...
    Yeah that's exactly what it is. I allow myself to do it a lot in first draft mode, then try to purge it out as much as possible. 'Smiled' is another one I used way too repetitiously and usually it is filler. 'Grinned', 'smirked', 'nodded', 'sighed', 'shrugged' these are all mostly pointless filler, things that occur far more frequently in writing than in real life and that dilute with each usage. Another common filler/tic is 'looked' -- The amount of times I read about people "looking" at things. It usually adds very little or nothing. What else? Laughed. Too much laughing. Fine if it's a scene when everybody's baked, but you have these regular or even rather dramatic conversations in which, apparently, the characters are laughing at the drop of a hat and it's weird.

  7. #7
    WF Veteran Tettsuo's Avatar
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    "And so it goes."

    This was repeated in Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, with great effectiveness. Repetition can be a useful tool when done well. It sticks the phrase or word in the mind of the reader, creating a chiastic feel to the story structure. I'm not sure if this is what you're talking about though. It could very well be that Mary Shelley simply didn't have another word to replace gnashing with. /shrug In the case of Vonnegut, it was clear that he very much meant to have "and so it goes", repeated in the book.

    It have been interesting to ask her.
    Where you can purchase a copy of Fallen Sun, my second novel. Hidden Content

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by BornForBurning View Post
    Which I kinda like. It has the same effect that small, isolated music movements do, before they get big enough for outsiders to start telling them what they're doing wrong. Not that Shelley 'should' have used the word gnashed as much as she did. But my point is, style tends to be a full package. Warts and all. You cut out the noise, you lose style. That's the point of Black Metal. Raw hatred, tremolo picking and bad electronics. Not everything has to be Black Metal. But some things probably should.

    Literary example? At his best, Lovecraft ascribes to the Black Metal creative theory. Raw terror. The prose itself becomes jumbled, confused, manic. Perhaps indiscernible. That's the point. That's why he can break all the rules and win. Because it's meant to be broken.

    It's four AM, and I can feel the heartbeat of chaos pulsing. Don't follow this theory unless you are under the protection of God. Folks far stronger than us have succumbed to what may come.
    Don't get me wrong. Slavish adherence to "writing rules" is as big a mistake as never having studied them in the first place. Part of the journey from beginner to veteran is knowing how to write effectively regardless of rules. There are many, they all have merit, and none of them should be followed to extreme.

    You read that adverbs are a negative. A beginner should use that to take a look at their writing, and learn to cut the useless adverbs. Some will survive, and that's fine.

    Adjectives: Too many and the copy is purple. Too few and it's dry. Passive voice. "To be" or not "to be" verbs (Copula Spiders). It goes on and on.

    Yes, you're going to have some adverbs. You're going to have some passive voice and some "to be" verbs. You're going to have some flowery sentences and some dry sentences. You're going to have some bad grammar--but it damned sure better be on purpose and for a specific effect. But a writer better not have too much of any (or all) of that--and more mistakes--and have them present because the writer didn't know better.

    Modern students of writing have a greater breadth of guidance to supply some ground rules, and that allows them--if they prepare with study--to avoid many of the worst mistakes without learning the hard way.

    You go back to 17th and 18th Century fiction, and you'll find some worth reading. You find a lot which is so purple or formal I discard it as crap. If those authors had access to the information hopeful authors do today, there would have been a lot less 17th and 18th Century crap published.

    There can be some number of unfortunate elements in a work and it can still be readable and enjoyable. But we shouldn't confuse that with a discussion of whether that work could have been improved. No aspiring writer should point to a mistake in published work and think it alibis the same mistake in their own writing. Most beginners have many varieties of mistakes present quite often. That's the main reason they get rejected, and the reason for the "first million words are crap" quote.

    Aspiring writers can't learn when they can ignore a rule if they don't know the rule in the first place. I know from experience. The first draft of my first novel had quite a few things to weed out in subsequent drafts--things I was unaware of as I wrote--but put in the research to learn about.

  9. #9
    After writing my first draft, then going back to revise (which ended up being a complete rewrite), I noticed SO MANY WORDS I would repeat often. Sometimes they would be repeats in the same paragraphs or sentence. After seeing that, I started reading everything I wrote out loud, because you can spot awkwardness much easier when you hear it.

  10. #10
    "You find a lot which is so purple or formal I discard it as crap."


    That's a horrible approach. I hope you aren't actually dismissing stories just because of how they're written. Style in prose is like a genre of music.

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