Don’t Get Sent to the Department of Redundancy

Today editor Robin Patchen tackles Fatal Flaw #3: Weak Construction. We’ve been examining this flaw all month, looking at the various ways writers stumble into the mire of weak construction through poor word choice and flawed sentence structure, as well as vagueness and bland or clunky dialog. Be sure to read through all these posts to learn how to catch this fatal flaw in your fiction writing!

“We get it.” I type those words often in my clients’ manuscripts. And when I see a lot of redundancy in their books, I’ve been known to simply type “DRD” in the comment box. Department of Redundancy Department—a great Monty Python line.

So many writers fall into this trap. They think of a few different ways to say the same thing, and they really like every one of their choices. They must, because they leave them all in. The quickest way to slow down your manuscript is to be redundant. It’s . . . how shall I say this? Boring.

Another great way to muddle your prose is to use lots of “ing” words and lots of adverbs rather than choose the one perfect word for the situation. One strong verb is better than two or three weak verbs with those little “ly” words tacked on for good measure. How do we clean up our sloppy prose so it’s both clear and riveting?

Exactly What Are You Trying to Say?

That’s the question you need to ask yourself. What do you want your reader to learn from this passage? What tone do you hope to convey, and what emotions do you want to elicit? Keeping those ideas in mind, ensure that every word in your passage matches your goals.

In the following paragraph, my POV character has just returned home after many years away. It’s the middle of the night, and her grandmother, who lives in the house, doesn’t know she’s coming. Rae has just pulled into the driveway and is surprised to find the house dark—that’s what I want my reader to learn. There is an element of danger in my book, so I want the reader to pick up on some suspense. And I want my reader to feel Rae’s emotions—eagerness to see her grandmother, worry about her grandmother’s health, and beneath that, an underlying fear.

BEFORE:

Allowing my gaze to wander over the property, I took in the house, the barn, the woods, the yard, and the driveway slowly. I wondered why the light wasn’t on on the porch and no light fell onto the surrounding ground. Turning around, I looked at the road from which I’d come and looked at the trees, which stood high above my head all around me. Gazing at the car, I looked into the backseat, and I saw my son, sleeping in his car seat, relaxed in repose, his eyes closed and his mouth moving as if he were dreaming of warm milk. I turned back to the house, to that dark porch, and those black windows where no lights had been lit, no life lighting its interior as if all the brightness had seeped out, the darkness had crept in, and there was no joy in there at all. Worriedly, I moved cautiously, keeping my feet from tripping on the gravel driveway, then turning slowly, I walked up the walkway to the dark porch. I lifted my hand, knocking gently on the door. Unfortunately, no light lit within the darkened residence, and nobody answered the door.

I knocked again worriedly and hoped my grandmother would come quickly. The baby was in the car and would wake up soon. And I needed Gram’s help with him. Mostly, though, I really wanted to feel my grandmother’s arms around me, to hug her and hold her tight, to see that she was all right, knowing she was healthy despite the fact that the house was dark. I was hoping Gram would make everything all better for me.

Riveting, right? Did you see all those redundancies? Let me point out a few. She “allowed her gaze to wander” and then “took in.” Later, we have, “Gazing . . . I looked . . . and I saw.” And in that same sentence, the baby is “sleeping . . . relaxed in repose . . . his eyes closed . . . dreaming.” Then there’s the “dark porch . . . black windows where no lights had been lit, no life lighting its interior . . . all the brightness had seeped out, the darkness had crept in . . .”

If I were editing this, I would highlight all of that and type “DRD” in the comment box.

And as if the redundancies aren’t bad enough, let’s look at all those adverbs. I counted ten. That’s probably ten too many (and yes, I just used an adverb. Don’t judge me.)

Finally, let’s look at the “ing” words. They tend to weaken and slow down your prose, so you want to use them sparingly. There are so many in my before paragraph, I didn’t bother to count them. (Go ahead and tell me, though. I know at least one of you is counting as we speak.)

I hope you got the point of the passage—that the house is dark and Rae is worried about why. Did you feel nervous or fearful? Did the tone seem suspenseful to you? Probably not—due to all the redundancies. Let’s see if we can fix it.

AFTER:

I stepped out of my car and breathed in the familiar scents of forest and fall. The leaves, still green, rustled in the slight breeze. But the house—why was it so dark? When I was a kid, Gram had always left the porch light on. Maybe she’d gotten out of the habit. Maybe her senility was worse than I’d thought. No, Gram would be fine. As soon as she saw us, she’d wrap us in those wrinkly arms and pull us inside. She’d make a pot of tea and tell me to drink up, because the chamomile would help me sleep.

I gazed at Johnny, sound asleep in his car seat. Gram would love him. And Johnny and I would be safe here, at least for a little while.

A car passed by on the street behind me, and I whipped around to watch its lights fade in the surrounding forest. Nothing to worry about. Julien didn’t know where I was—not yet anyway.

I lifted Johnny out of the car and started for the house. Once we got inside with Gram, everything would be all right.

 Better, I hope. I eliminated the redundancies and the telling words—saw, looked, wondered, etc. I kept (and added) some important details and dumped the unimportant ones. I tried to use more straightforward verbs—fewer “ing” words. I had her react to the car driving by to hint at her fear. I added the bit about Gram hugging her and making the tea because I want the reader to feel eager for Rae to see Gram and nervous that there’s something wrong. Is it better? I think so. What do you think?

Your turn:

Do you have trouble pulling out the redundancies in your writing? Do you write with a lot of “ing” words and “ly” words? A lot of words than tell instead of show? What are some adverbs you overuse or hate to see overused in the novels you read?

16 Responses to “Don’t Get Sent to the Department of Redundancy”

  1. Robin Patchen March 25, 2015 at 7:21 am #

    You’re welcome. De nada. Soyez le bienvenu. N?????????. Prego. Bitte.

    (That would be you’re welcome in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Italian, and German. Ain’t Google wonderful?)

  2. Robin Patchen March 25, 2015 at 7:21 am #

    You’re welcome. De nada. Soyez le bienvenu. N?????????. Prego. Bitte.

    (That would be you’re welcome in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Italian, and German. Ain’t Google wonderful?)

  3. Christy Distler March 25, 2015 at 7:54 am #

    Excellent advice and examples, Robin (and how can you go wrong with a Monty Python reference?). The AFTER is so much more captivating, especially with how you focused on hints of the character’s plight instead of physical description of the landscape.

    • Robin Patchen March 25, 2015 at 8:14 am #

      Thanks, Christy. My first drafts always look more like the before, so that’s easy for me to write.

  4. Angela Duffield-Warren March 25, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

    Thank you. Susanne you helped me so much with this.

  5. J March 25, 2015 at 2:38 pm #

    I often use ‘ing’ words to start a sentence, particularly when I have been using too many of the same pronoun to start previous sentences. Are there any other ways to get variety here? Otherwise I fall into an entirely different ‘boredom trap’.
    One other question: is there anything to be said for ‘writing for sound’? What if the thing you have written just sounds beautiful when you speak it or hear it in your head, but is *technically* redundant? Leave it or kill it?
    J

    • Robin Patchen March 25, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

      Two great questions, J. Using phrases starting with -ing words (introductory participial phrases) isn’t wrong, and they can add variety to your writing. Be aware that they tend to weaken the verb. Which is stronger? “Running from the gunman, I ducked into an alley” or “I ran from the gunman and ducked in an alley.” I would argue the 2nd. “Running from the gunman”–that sounds almost matter of fact. Sometimes that weak construction is perfectly fine. “Seated on a park bench, the old man tossed bread crumbs to the pigeons.” That works fine. So use those participles purposefully.

      I know what you mean about starting with the same pronouns over and over. That does get old. Perhaps shift the attention. Instead of, “I enjoyed the sandwich,” perhaps, “The pepperoni and provolone oozed out of the stromboli, and grease dripped off my fingertips.” (Guess what’s for dinner tonight at my house!)

      We should all write for sound to some degree. The beauty and cadence of lyrical language shouldn’t be tossed aside. I suppose how much you use of it depends on your voice, and how much you can get away with depends on what genre you’re writing. Even then, I think Dean Koontz has an amazing way with language, and he writes thrillers, so anybody can do it. I don’t think it’s necessary to be redundant to be lyrical, though. Perhaps you can tighten the prose and make it even better.

      I hope that helps.

  6. Beth Havey March 25, 2015 at 3:05 pm #

    Hi Robin,

    So nice to see you here. I enjoyed the examples of before and after and even remember the names of your characters.

    Happy Writing, Beth Havey

  7. Rebecca Vance March 25, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

    Thanks, Robin! I’ve noticed that it’s easy to slip into the “sloppy” description. I am a newbie, and it is an eyeopener at the amount of adverbs and weak verbs and adverbs, and gerunds that I find in my drafts. I will try to be more aware from now on. I’m reading this wonderful book on description that goes over this quite well, and it’s been so helpful. Is that redundant? Sorry! 🙂

    • Robin Patchen March 26, 2015 at 6:24 am #

      Rebecca, it’s so hard when you’re first starting out, because nothing feels natural. I promise, if you keep at it, eventually your first drafts will have fewer issues, and the writing will feel more natural. There’s always more to learn, but it’s nice to see yourself mastering skills as you go along. Kudos to you for working so hard to improve your skills. It’ll pay off.

  8. Terri Weldon March 25, 2015 at 7:13 pm #

    Great example Robin, I such a difference between the two.

  9. Pam Smedley March 26, 2015 at 12:19 pm #

    Robin, wonderful examples! In your second passage I felt the story moving forward compared to standing still in the first passage.

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