Friday, May 18, 2007

Thoughts On Editing For Repetitive Structure

If you're an aspiring writer and aren't reading Anne Mini's blog yet, you should be. Today's post, On beyond Dick and Jane, is about self editing. Specifically, about self editing for repetitive structures in your writing. This is a prose flaw that I personally find extremely grating, so I spend a lot of time working on this one issue with my own writing. Here are a couple of tricks I use when looking for these in my revisions.

As an aside, let me note that I think the repetitive structure issue is one that's positively inevitable in first drafts. It's something I've been warring with for the past few years, and I've seen it in plenty of other aspiring writers' work as well. Since our brains are largely focused on just getting the story on the page during that first round of writing, first drafts tend to turn up a higher dose of repetitive sentences than they should.

All right, on to the tips. First, I never try to edit too much at one time when I'm doing looking for this sort of complex/subtle issue. It takes a lot of focus to read for repetitions, especially when you're attempting to keep up the variance through not only one paragraph, but also adjacent paragraphs (as you should be). I generally edit 3,000 or less words at one time, and then do some actual writing. That's part of why I edit as I write, and then edit again (multiple times) after I finish. By the time I consider a work "done" and ready for submission, I've probably passed over the opening chapters a score of times--no kidding. The last chapters perhaps only get half a dozen passes, but by that point in the story my writing tends to be smoother anyway because I know the characters and setting so well at that point.

Secondly, read out loud. Notice when you stumble or when your attention starts to flag even a little bit. No matter what, in those cases you have a problem--and often it is an issue of repetitiveness. Most of us don't naturally speak in complex repetitive patterns, and that trips us up. On the flip side, if it's nothing but short simple sentences you'll be able to read it fine, but you'll fall into a monotone. Watch for both.

Thirdly, and this is one of my better tips: stop using so many complex compound sentences. In my experience, several shorter sentences placed near to one another are much more readable than several long sentences are. To accomplish this, you can simply split a lot of your existing sentences--for instance, avoid transitions where you are saying "while thing X was happening, so was thing Y," or "thing X happened, and then thing Y did." Often you can just state X and Y each as their own shorter sentences, and the reader will naturally understand that X happened before Y (that's the order they read them in, isn't it?). And in a similar issue, if there's a flurry of action happening all at once, that's also likely to be clear without your having to explicitly point it out. I'm not saying you should use short sentence structure exclusively--far from it--but this is one excellent way to vary those compound sentences that otherwise could smother your action-heavy scenes.

Read some action scenes in your favorite book, and see if you don't notice the author doing this. You probably won't have noticed on prior reads, because your mind automatically connects the short sentences to one another. Some aspiring writers believe that short sentences close together are grating, and indeed they can be if carried to excess--but I think that many of us tend to overreact to this structure, and thus wind up with too many long sentences (a far graver sin--and hey, one that I'm exhibiting in this very blog post for some reason).

Here's why I think juxtaposed short sentences are a lesser issue than you might believe: in my studies of Latin poetry, I became familiar with a reading device called elision. All Latin poetry follows a specific meter, which can only have a certain number of syllables per line. Yet some lines from the great works of Catullus and other Roman poets seem to have an extra syllable--this seems wrong at first to students, but it's actually a difference in how the Romans read their poetry aloud versus how they wrote it--they dropped one of the syllables as they read it aloud, combining two words into one so that it fit the meter. See the link above for the details if you're curious. I think that a similar mechanism is going on when a reader encounters two or three short sentences in a row--we read them as one connected idea, not noticing the short sentences until we pass a certain threshold of them. Again, don't take this as me recommending just using this style, because I'm not--but too many aspiring writers (my not-so-distant-past self included) seem to be resistant to using juxtaposed short sentences at all. And hey, it's this resistance to the use of certain sentence forms that causes us to have structural repetition in the first place.

Fourth tip: intersperse dialogue in your action-heavy scenes. It's generally easier to have naturally-flowing dialogue because we're so used to hearing that. Long-running narration without dialogue can get quite tiring unless it is skillfully done, anyway. Even better, in scenes of action you can actually imply action through dialogue, and that's often much more concise and evocative. I recently noted some examples of how Phillip Pullman does this in THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

In all these tips, I've really been more focused on action scenes, since those are a common place where structural repetition might be a problem. At the same time, however, extended exposition of any sort--be it physical description or a character's internal thoughts or monologue--lends itself to this problem. Revise carefully for this ugly structural problem; you'll be glad you did.

What techniques have you developed for dealing with the issue of repetitive structure in your own writing?


Rachel V. Olivier said...

I haven't tried this with my own writing, but when I'm proofing at work and the words are blurring, I read the text backwords. Start at the bottom of the page and go up. That helps me find things that my mind might otherwise smooth over for me.

Christopher M. Park said...

What an interesting idea! That's not one that I've ever heard before. That could be useful in general for altering how you look at the text; I'll have to try this at some point.


tkersh said...

Hi Chris,

Great ideas on editing, especially reading aloud. I used the edit/write, edit/write method for a long time too. Then I took the National Novel Writing Month's first-draft-in-a-month challenge. Like speed chess, it forced me to focus on what worked for me and drop bad habits FAST. Highly, highly recommended for anyone, even if you end up stretching it to a month and a half like I did.

Since then, I've found that it really works for me to write my first draft straight ahead, with no editing allowed. An "edit-less" first draft helps me to stay completely creative during the whole process instead of switching between creative and analytical, and it lets me dream up ideas without fear that the editor is going to come through and strike them right away.

The biggest advantage is that I tend to discover things at the end that I didn't know at the beginning. Why rewrite a scene many times if it's ultimately going to be completely different or (gasp) deleted altogether?

When I finish the first draft, I put it in a drawer for six months (if possible) to regain perspective, and then come back for several rounds of editing.

Everyone has to find their own method, but I recommend trying many different ones to see what works for you.

Cheers and happy writing!

Christopher M. Park said...


Thanks very much for the thoughts and insights, and for stopping by my blog! I'll definitely have to consider that approach -- you've outlined some great things to think about.