How Many Is Too Many?

An editor was asking how to explain to a client that he was overusing a particular word.

Writers, even experienced writers, have our pet constructions, our favorite words. Often we don’t realize we’re overusing them. When I’m in revision mode, I’ll pause on a word and realize I’ve seen it pretty recently. I hit CTRL+F (that’s the Windows version — it’s COMMAND + F for you Mac folks), put the word in the search bar, and search upward. Recently I discovered I’d used “stage-whispered” twice in three pages. One of them wasn’t necessary. I got rid of it.

The editor’s query wasn’t unusual, but then the editor wanted to know if there was a “rule of thumb” for how many repetitions of a word was too many.

I replied that I went by the “rule of gut”: as an experienced editor and writer, I know that when something stops me in my tracks, it’s worth a second look.

Other editors pointed out that it depended on the word. Unusual words call attention to themselves. “Stage-whispered” isn’t exactly exotic, but as a dialogue tag it’s not all that common either. Twice in three pages struck me as once too often. Other words are so distinctive that if you encounter one on page 251, you may remember that you saw it a hundred pages earlier.

Aside: In my many years of editing on paper, without CTRL+F to fall back on, I developed a sixth sense for this. I also noted unusual words, variant spellings, and personal and place names on my style sheet, along with the applicable page number. When the Katherine on page 73 became Katharine on page 228, I usually noticed. CTRL+F has spoiled me rotten. I’m not as good at this as I used to be, but I’m still not bad.

The inquiring editor took all this in and finally asked how, if there was no rule, she could explain to the client that he was overusing a word. Had anyone done any studies on how often is too often? she wondered.

Then someone suggested telling the client that his readers would notice and not like it. Back in September I blogged about editors and other gatekeepers who hide behind “readers won’t like it if . . .” Editors who hide behind an “authority” that can’t be contradicted or even verified are treading on unsteady ground.

“Good editors don’t need to hide,” I wrote. “We’ll say things like ‘I stumbled over this bit’ or ‘Given the conventions of [insert genre here], you might consider picking up the pace in chapter one.'”

I’ve learned over the years that anything that trips a reader up is worth a second look. Especially if the reader is someone whose opinion I respect and whose honesty I want to encourage. Perceptive readers who’ll give you their honest opinion about your work in progress aren’t all that easy to find. Encourage them by paying attention to what they tell you.

You don’t have to act on all of it: of course not. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned at the first writing workshop I ever attended is that readers are a diverse lot. One might love a turn of phrase that another finds trite or confusing. Two might interpret a character’s actions in one scene in two different ways — and have equally valid reasons for doing so. Readers bring their own unique experiences and expectations to your work. They aren’t going to read it the same way no matter what you do. Listen to what they tell you, then make up your own mind.

So back to the original question: “How many is too many?” Well, if someone notes that a particular word or phrase or construction comes up a lot in your story or essay, take a critical look at it. Use CTRL+F or COMMAND+F to find out just how often you’re using a word or phrase. Even better, read the passage aloud. The word “audience” comes from the Latin verb audīre, to hear. For many of us, repetitiousness is easier to hear than to see.

Learn what your own literary tics are. You don’t have to avoid them completely: just come up with some alternatives.

And keep in mind that repetition can be an effective device. Sometimes it’s 100% intentional. Here’s an example from my novel in progress:

Shannon knew what the message said. It had been playing when she walked through the door twenty minutes ago. She’d dropped onto the sofa and been sitting there ever since, as the room grew darker and both dogs gave up on being fed early. If she got up, she’d have to decide: play the message back or deep-six it, like she’d deep-sixed the last one and the ones before it.

The last deep-six had been on impulse and she’d been regretting it ever since. . . .

“Deep-six” occurs three times in two adjacent sentences, and in the third instance the verb has turned into a noun. Horrors! Is this too many? Should one of those deep-sixes be deep-sixed?

For the moment, no. I like the way the passage reads. The repetition suggests that Shannon is obsessing about what she’s done and wondering what to do next. Will it survive into the next draft? That I can’t tell you. What seems just right now may seem like too many tomorrow — or vice versa. That’s writing for you, and it’s why I trust my rules of gut more than other people’s rules of thumb.

 

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5 thoughts on “How Many Is Too Many?

    • When I started writing this, I was annoyed with editors who need a “rule” to back them up, and with editors who fall back on “readers won’t like it if . . .” when a client won’t take their advice. (This is a pet peeve of mine.) Then I started thinking more like a writer: If someone in my writers’ group thinks I’m overusing a word or that a particular sentence is hard to follow, that’s enough to make me take a second look. I may not change it, especially if I can’t come up with a better alternative, but I don’t need a rule or a pile of statistics to make me pay attention. Grammar and usage questions, on the other hand — I look those up a lot.

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      • There are rules and there are guidelines. I think your example (deep-six) shows well the occasional artistic overuse of a word or phrase. The overuse served a purpose. I get picky myself when I see that I am “overusing” a word or phrase even just once. Again, it’s about what is needed to make the writing the best it can be.

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