“Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that inescapable sorrowful depth that shines through—originality.”
— Jack Kerouac
“Just about every writer unconsciously leans on a “crutch” word. Hillary Clinton’s repeated word is “eager” (can you believe it? the committee that wrote Living History should be ashamed). Cosmopolitan magazine editor Kate White uses “quickly” over a dozen times in A Body To Die For. Jack Kerouac’s crutch word in On the Road is “sad,” sometimes doubly so – “sad, sad.” Ann Packer’s in The Dive from Clausen’s Pier is “weird.”
Crutch words are usually unremarkable. That’s why they slip under editorial radar – they’re not even worth repeating, but there you have it, pop, pop, pop, up they come. Readers, however, notice them, get irked by them and are eventually distracted by them, and down goes your book, never to be opened again.
But even if the word is unusual, and even if you use it differently when you repeat it, don’t: Set a higher standard for yourself even if readers
won’t notice. In Jennifer Egan’s Look at me, the core word – a good word, but because it’s good, you get *one* per book – is “abraded.”
Here’s the problem:
“Victoria’s blue gaze abraded me with the texture of ground glass.” page 202
“…(metal trucks abrading the concrete)…” page 217
“…he relished the abrasion of her skepticism…” page 256
“…since his abrasion with Z …” page 272
The same goes for repeats of several words together – a phrase or sentence that may seem fresh at first, but, restated many times, draws attention from the author’s strengths. Sheldon Siegel nearly bludgeons us in his otherwise witty and articulate courtroom thriller, Final Verdict, with a sentence construction that’s repeated throughout the book:
“His tone oozes self-righteousness when he says…” page 188
“His voice is barely audible when he says…” page 193
“His tone is unapologetic when he says…” page 199
“Rosie keeps her tone even when she says…” page 200
“His tone is even when he says…” page 205
“I switch to my lawyer voice when I say …” page 211
“He sounds like Grace when he says…” page 211
What a tragedy. I’m not saying all forms of this sentence should be lopped off. Lawyers find their rhythm in the courtroom by phrasing
questions in the same or similar way. It’s just that you can’t do it too often on the page. After the third or fourth or 16th time, readers exclaim silently, “Where was the editor who shoulda caught this?” or “What was the author thinking?
So if you are the author, don’t wait for the agent or house or even editorial consultant to catch this stuff *for* you. Attune your eye now. Vow to yourself, NO REPEATS.
And by the way, even deliberate repeats should always be questioned: “Here are the documents.” says one character. “If these are the documents, I’ll oppose you,” says another. A repeat like that just keeps us on the surface. Figure out a different word; or rewrite the exchange. Repeats rarely allow you to probe deeper.”
For more excellent tips on writing from Pat Holt, click HERE.
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