Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Repeated words and phrases

Shakespeare's pithy phrases find their way into movie and television dialogue, often to great effect.

For example:
"All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. " Macbeth (Act V, Sc. I)

A while back, reruns of the original CSI TV series played each evening. I caught a bit of an episode in which Grissom, the head of the team, used the above quote in reference to a dead woman's hand. Okay, he's erudite, knows his snakes, scorpions, and Shakespeare. A few nights later I watched, also in reruns, an episode of CSI NY and heard the medical examiner use the same quote in reference to a dead woman's hand. It stuck out like a purple swollen big toe (I'm trying not to use a cliche).

The writers of these shows [I'm assuming different shows, different writers] probably didn't watch each others' episodes or read the scripts. Perhaps they receive lists of words, phrases, and quotations to choose from for the characters' dialogue. Most viewers wouldn't care. (Or even notice?) This writer, who satisfies her morbid interests by watching bullets bore through brains, knives slice though muscles, and teeth get lodged in guts, DID notice.

So what does this have to do with my own writing? I'm more conscious of re-using words and phrases and try to avoid repetition, but sometimes the echoes sneak through. I'm not talking about "invisible" words like the, it, said, and so on, but special words that sound great used once, overdone if repeated. Take words like frisson or cynosure. The first time I read these words I had to look them up. They are perfect when placed right. But if used again in the same work it seems like lazy writing. I've read books by top-selling authors and have seen them fall into the repetition trap. Makes me cringe. Were they not edited?

Those words are the swollen big toes. They stand out, make readers stop and shake their heads, and lose what's called the fictive dream. There are lesser words that are often repeated and would sound fine in context but often appear too close together in unrelated sentences. Most readers probably don't, but I notice these.

Microsoft Word has a search feature that finds every instance of a word in your file. It's a good way of rooting out undesirable repetition. Another thing I find helpful is having a Dragon NaturallySpeaking program read chapters aloud. Sometimes the ear picks up what the eyes miss.


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