Writing Forums

Writing Forums is a privately-owned, community managed writing environment. We provide an unlimited opportunity for writers and poets of all abilities, to share their work and communicate with other writers and creative artists. We offer an experience that is safe, welcoming and friendly, regardless of your level of participation, knowledge or skill. There are several opportunities for writers to exchange tips, engage in discussions about techniques, and grow in your craft. You can also participate in forum competitions that are exciting and helpful in building your skill level. There's so much more for you to explore!

Repeating words (1 Viewer)

Status
Not open for further replies.

EternalGreen

Senior Member
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.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Always makes me think of this 37 seconds of hilarity...

[video=youtube;vItxezbdSaU]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vItxezbdSaU[/video]

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!
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
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.
 

BornForBurning

Senior Member
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.
 

TheManx

Senior Member
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...
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
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.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
"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. :)
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
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.
 

WailingDusk

Senior Member
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.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
"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.
 

WailingDusk

Senior Member
"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.

Yes, but not everyone enjoys the same genres of music. The same goes for prose. I DNF'd Nevernight after about 50 pages because the prose was so "extra" it distracted from the story on numerous occasions. Many times it pulled me out of the story completely and I was so uninterested that it felt more like I was torturing myself to get through it. But it's very popular, and a lot of people like it. I do not like that kind of flowery, almost pompous style of writing.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
"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.

The hell I don't. Bad writing is not a style. It's one reason I cringe and move on. Purple prose is generally considered bad writing. Too formal can be, or in other cases may just be a style I don't care for. In either case, if I'm not enjoying the read, I'm done with the read. I hesitate to name a title in particular, for it is certain to have some fans. But I will. Vanity Fair was the very last fiction which was forced upon me. Thackery was so in love, it seems, with each sentence he wrote that he never wanted it to end. I imagine the pain he felt as he was forced to finally inscribe a period, forsake that sentence, and begin a new affair.

I can offer only one excuse for enduring bad writing: once we see it ourselves, it is easier to avoid a particular sin of authorship in our own pages.

By the way, there are a few genres of music I won't tolerate. LOL But a difference in taste is not the topic here. Bad writing is like off-key singing. I know it when I come across it, and I cut if off.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
I hope you aren't actually dismissing stories just because of how they're written.

Is there a better reason for not liking something?

Of course you can dismiss writing you don't like, and you should. Personal taste is not a democracy, it is an absolute monarchy. Dismiss basic or purple writing as you like, just as you would dismiss undercooked or overcooked food.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
Is there a better reason for not liking something?

Of course you can dismiss writing you don't like, and you should. Personal taste is not a democracy, it is an absolute monarchy. Dismiss basic or purple writing as you like, just as you would dismiss undercooked or overcooked food.

Fine. You don't have to call it bad writing, though.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Fine. You don't have to call it bad writing, though.

We're looking at two circumstances here. It is possible to have flowery writing that is to the taste of some readers. It is ALSO possible to have purple prose that is just dreck. I've seen both. You see less of the dreck in published work. Over the last 12 years, I've seen the first attempts of a lot of hopeful writers. Most of it is pretty bad, for a variety of reasons, among them purple prose. You can add bad grammar, wrong words, atrocious sentence structure, terrible plotting, and I've seen typos in the very first sentence. (I've made a version of this comment before, months ago, on this board).

Let's look at a well-respected writer with some flowery prose ... Raymond Chandler. If you grab a copy of The Big Sleep, you'll find the first page is nothing but a detailed description of a room and some landscaping. You get a whole paragraph about one stained-glass panel. Chandler often indulges minutiae in detail when he first describes a background or a character. But he doesn't always do that. Plus, his dialogue is clean, and his action is often terse. I personally think some of his descriptions are overbaked, but I don't mind them, because I know at some point soon he's going to get on with things.

Compare that to Mickey Spillane, who is writing the same style of hard-bitten detective, also first person. You start I, the Jury by finding out the decedent lived in two rooms. One has a chair and a bed, the other a small couch.

These are two distinctly different styles, and they both work.

Now, you can go out and find a new writer who has read The Big Sleep and thinks EVERYTHING they write needs to be page one. The flowery prose suffuses scene description, action, and dialogue (yikes!). It never stops. That writer is convinced they're creating something beautiful, when in reality it's a mess the reader soon tires of.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
If you think problems with unpublished manuscripts constitute a reason to be angry, you're going to be angry a lot. The difference between a gaudy story and a pretty one is the essence of literature. No sense talking the problem to death rather than writing.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
Fine. You don't have to call it bad writing, though.

Would it help to say 'it's bad writing...to me' or would that fail the purity test? I mean, can we really say anything is bad? Is tripping over your feet bad walking, or is it simply a different style of walking? Is a book rife with spelling mistakes bad writing? What about syntactical errors? Wooden dialogue? At what point, if any, does something become 'bad writing'?

I'm not trying to be an ass, Eternal, I apologize. The question is actually in good faith, I am always curious about people who claim that there isn't some sort of consensus regarding writing being good/bad. For the record, I do think a lot of it is subjective...but not all of it...and even if it is subjective, it is still not a horrible approach to call a spade a spade within one's own, personal judgment.

This absolute monarchy may be beholden to the whims of its dread sovereign.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
Would it help to say 'it's bad writing...to me' or would that fail the purity test? I mean, can we really say anything is bad? Is tripping over your feet bad walking, or is it simply a different style of walking? Is a book rife with spelling mistakes bad writing? What about syntactical errors? Wooden dialogue? At what point, if any, does something become 'bad writing'?

I'm not trying to be an ass, Eternal, I apologize. The question is actually in good faith, I am always curious about people who claim that there isn't some sort of consensus regarding writing being good/bad. For the record, I do think a lot of it is subjective...but not all of it...and even if it is subjective, it is still not a horrible approach to call a spade a spade within one's own, personal judgment.

This absolute monarchy may be beholden to the whims of its dread sovereign.

I imagine you would find the Turn of the Screw by Henry James "purple" despite it being considered "good writing" by, if no one else, the writing community of the era in which it was written. Elaborate prose isn't as unpopular as you seem to believe. Sometimes "overwritten" text is just fun to read; I don't know how else to put it. A lot of people agree with me, too.

Writing fictional prose isn't walking. It's dancing (if you want it to be).
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
If you think problems with unpublished manuscripts constitute a reason to be angry, you're going to be angry a lot. The difference between a gaudy story and a pretty one is the essence of literature. No sense talking the problem to death rather than writing.

No one said anything about being angry. And we're not just talking about unpublished manuscripts. We're also talking about self-published manuscripts, loads of which are not ready for the unsuspecting reader. In fact, I could stack up a pile of stuff from traditional houses that must have happened from a localized desperation to fill their schedule.

If we don't discuss areas where people can improve their writing, we're not providing a service for the members who come here to learn more about writing.
 
But the difference between The Turn of the Screw and overwritten or 'purple' prose is that Henry James had his prose under control. It's elaborate, absolutely, but not needlessly vague or awkward, which amateur 'purple' can often be.

Here's what I would call 'purple' (courtesy me when I was 14):
"Swords are cast aside and coated with blood, blood spilled despite the little match-light that could not be blown out by any winter wind."

This is overwritten because my point (if I remember correctly) was to evoke that a battle had happened (the tangent about the match-light ... I think it's literally there because I liked the word 'match-light'). And, also, and perhaps more importantly, it just ... doesn't sound good. IMO the mark of good 'fancy' prose is simply that it sounds good.

Compare (from The Great God Pan, Arthur Machen):
"Clarke, in the deep folds of dream, was conscious that the path from his father's house had led him into an undiscovered country, and he was wondering at the strangeness of it all, when suddenly, in place of the hum and murmur of the summer, an infinite silence seemed to fall on all things, and the wood was hushed, and for a moment in time he stood face to face there with a presence, that was neither man nor beast, neither the living nor the dead, but all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form. And in that moment, the sacrament of body and soul was dissolved, and a voice seemed to cry "Let us go hence," and then the darkness of darkness beyond the stars, the darkness of everlasting."

Arguably, this is more 'elaborate.' But it's clearly better. First of all because it just sounds good. The language is actually beautiful, instead of just trying to be beautiful. But also, this story needs 'fancy' prose. How would you describe "all things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of all form" in a more basic style? You could, perhaps, but it would be different -- it would mean something different. Because content and execution are absolutely linked. There's a reason I wrote "Six Literal Molehills" in a jumpy, childish voice and "He Who Looks Through the Trees" in a Victorian voice.

I do think that some writing is objectively better than others. There's stylistic differences, but there's also just knowing how to craft and control language. Chesterton's more elaborate than me, but he's also a better writer.

Specifically to EternalGreen, what you may be reacting to is that sometimes when people encounter bad 'fancy' prose, their response is something along the lines of "write more simply." But this doesn't actually help the amateur writer get better at what they want to be good at -- which is writing 'fancy' prose. If somebody's writing is 'purple' in the bad sense, I'd actually advise them to practice elaborate prose, to get it under control and get good at it. Not to avoid it.

Honestly, I think the reason why there's some bad 'purple' prose out there is because people are trying to write it without having ever read very much of it. Victorian voice is easier if you've just read Lovecraft, Machen, Graham, and Blackwood back-to-back.
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top