Tip #1: Earworms. We’ve all had them. That song that gets stuck in your head and just won’t go away. You hear it everywhere, in everything, from raindrops to ringtones to the drip-drippity-drip of your coffee maker. The melody creeps up on you when you’re doing something mundane but distracting, like dishes or laundry. Before you know it, you’re humming it again. Some heinous Justin Bieber song. Bad Romance. The jingle from that annoying Triple-Dent gum commercial. The theme song from one of your kids’ favorite shows. Even songs you like can get your back up after a while. There’s only one thing to do…
Actually, there’s nothing you can do about earworms, sorry! They are like the hiccups; they’ll go away if you ignore them. But writers have their own form of earworms, and those are much easier to excise. Like the song that haunts your every waking moment with its poppy melody, every writer has words, phrases, or syntax that they overuse. Sometimes the problem is exclusive to a scene or a section of a book, where your brain catches on a word and, like a skipping record, keeps coming back to it. Sometimes it’s like the killer in a slasher flick that keeps coming back from the dead, not just in the first film, but in multiple sequels. No matter what you do, you just can’t seem to put that word down for good.
Though every writer is hobbled by this to some extent, it’s a crutch new writers often lean on while honing their craft. Back in my fanfic days, inspired by Homer and the oral tradition, I deliberately used certain phrases over and over again to give my work a kind of epic quality (it was Lord of the Rings fanfic, after all), à la “the rosy-fingered dawn.” I remember a friend taking me to task for the overuse of the word “dulcet” in particular, and many a writing group has pointed out my tendency towards overlong, essay-like sewrintence structure. I guess I’m just an academic at heart.
Pattern recognition isn’t just about identifying overused words. Keep a weather eye out for too-similar sentence structure as well. This post was inspired by a book I’m editing at the moment, in which the writer uses ‘and’ in virtually every sentence of the prose. “He jumped on the bus and walked to the back. He found a seat and settled in. He took out his laptop and pulled up a file. He scanned through the pictures and found the one he wanted.” (Not an actual quote from the book.) That’s an exaggeration, but you get my point. Don’t just look out for word repetition, try and spot other patterns in your writing and break them.
As a writer, it’s vital to become familiar with the words and syntax that recur in your work and to look out for them during the editing process. A good editor will spot those kinds of things, but even better if they don’t have to. After all, the cleaner the manuscript you give them, the more time they’ll have to concentrate on the important things, like plot and character development—and it might shave some editing time off your bill.
Tip #2: What’s in a name?
-Jack! Jack! Jack!
-Swim, Rose! I need you to swim! Keep swimming.
-It’s so cold.
-Swim, Rose! Come on. Here. Keep swimming. Come on. Come on, Rose. Stay on it. Stay on, Rose. It’ll be all right now.”
–Actual dialogue from the movie Titanic, by James Cameron.
Disaster movies are lousy with name repetition, sometimes for good reason. You’re not going to stop and give a soliloquy when an axe murderer is chasing you or you’re stuck on a luxury liner that’s about to break in two. But we’ve all seen those movies where the characters call out each other’s names too often, to the point where it becomes almost laughable and nowhere near true to life.
In the first five lines above, Rose and Jack are trying to stay together amidst harrowing circumstances, so the fact that they are using each other’s names makes sense. In the rest of the quote, there is absolutely no reason why he needs to keep saying “Rose”. At that point they are alone in the water—who else would he be shouting at? Every time I catch some of Titanic, I remember all over again how annoying and unrealistic the name repetition is.
Books are a much less forgiving medium than film in this regard, especially given the frequency with which characters’ names appear in the prose sections or speaker tags. So it’s best to edit out the proper names from all dialogue unless absolutely necessary.
Think about how often and under what circumstances you would call someone by their name in real life. I don’t know about you, but I almost never say my friends’ names unless I’m calling to them from far away or we’ve been separated in a large crowd. I also tend to use their first names when underlining a point or in anger. The latter is especially true for my dog. I almost exclusively call her by her real name when I’m annoyed; otherwise, it’s one of her 10,000 nicknames.
Use a similar rule of thumb when you’re editing. If your character has an emotional motivation for calling someone by their name, then leave it in. If it’s window dressing, cut, cut, cut! An exception can be made for historical fiction, since in certain cases it would be normal for your characters to use an honorific, or there’s an established protocol to how people are addressed. But even there, don’t overdo the ‘sir’s’, ‘ma’am’s’, and ‘my lord’s’/’my lady’s’. As always, read these sections out loud to get a sense of how the flow is working.
Recognizing these patterns in your writing can help sharpen your editing skills and make for a better experience for your readers. Earworms can burrow their way deep into your brain, so make sure you don’t inspire any of your own.