Variety Is the Spice of Prose

In the revision process, I think that one whole read through should be devoted to spotting and removing bland and unnecessary repetitions of words and phrases. Here is a paragraph from Ron Suskind’s Life, Animated:

There was that one time, on a trip to Southampton last August, when he cried inconsolably for much of a day, though he’d never been much of a crier. Then there was the day the moving van was being loaded in late October, when a close friend had taken the kids for the day and, dropping them off, told us Owen had slept the whole time. He still took naps, but half the day? Unpacking a box, Cornelia finds a video from that very day, moving day.

To my eye and ear, these repetitions are dead spots at which the writer has abdicated his responsibility to sweat the small stuff, to come up with fresh language line by line. I’d propose a rewording:

Once, on a trip to Southampton last August, he cried inconsolably for most of a day, though he’d never been much of a crier. Then, in late October, the moving van was being loaded when a close friend who’d kept the kids dropped them off and told us Owen had slept the whole time. He still took naps, but half the day? Unpacking a box, Cornelia finds a video from that very date.

Here is another example, this time from Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire:

The pages were breathing visibly, inhaling and exhaling all around me. My perspective had narrowed, as if I were looking through a viewfinder. The fluorescent lights flickered, and the walls tightened claustrophobically around me.

 In my view, such slipups, no matter how apparently minor, simply represent lazy choices that take the route of least resistance and signal—as compared to other writers or to oneself on other pages—a low degree of self-awareness and inventiveness.

Another common form of this literary weakness is overuse of characters’ names. Again, from Brain on Fire:

I felt guilty as I watched Stephen methodically stir the sauce for shrimp fra diavolo with a kitchen towel tucked in his pant loops. Stephen was a naturally skilled and inventive cook. 

My shyness struck Stephen as strange; I was never one to keep my opinions to myself.

"Did you like the show?" Stephen nudged, reaching out for my hand.

Here, the idea is not to come up with new words or phrases but just to recognize the efficacy of pronouns; if there is no chance that using one instead of the name will cause confusion, better to do so, especially if the character’s name has appeared only a line or two above.

Some will object, “Oh, c’mon, you’re being way too anal. Nobody cares about such trivial things.” Okay, say that 80% of readers indeed won’t notice the difference or even consider such revisions to be improvements at all. Still, why not play to the remaining 20%, the more discerning or unforgiving subset, given that the 80% is unlikely to assess the new version as problematically lacking in repetition? Why not aim, as far as possible, to embrace the entire spectrum of readers?

Others will object, “No, but repetition can be important . . . for emphasis.” Yes, of course, as in these examples from Margaret Howe Freydberg’s Growing Up in Old Age:

Finally, it was too dark, too impenetrably dark, to see the road in front of me.

The puzzling contradiction in many aging people is that they are old, they look old, but their spirits don’t feel old.

The key distinction here is between purposeful repetition and careless repetition. The latter can simply make one’s linguistic resources seem narrower, one’s prose less multi-dimensional, rich, and conscious.