Writers in the Storm

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February 22, 2019

Redundant Writing - and How to Exorcise it

I read a blog the other day that taught me a new writing craft term: Countersinking. This is how Rob Bignell defines it in his article:

One way for an author to slow a story is to employ “countersinking,” a term coined by science fiction writer Lewis Shiner. Countersinking involves making explicit the very actions that the story implies. An example is: “We need to hide,” she said, asking him to seek cover. 

Countersinking is also known as “expositional redundancy” and for good reason; in the above example, the character’s dialogue already directly states that she thinks they should hide. So why repeat it? 

Besides slowing the story’s dramatic momentum, countersinking suggests the author lacks confidence in his or her storytelling ability. 

The solution is simple: Cut the redundant wording to tighten your writing. The above example could be rewritten as: “We need to hide,” she said.

Yes! This always bothered me in writing (including mine), but I didn't know there was a name for it. I agree with Shiner - it's due to the writer lacking confidence, but the result is worse than simply slowing the read. It can insult the reader. It makes them feel like the writer is 'talking down to them'. Like you think they're too dumb to get it the first time.

Wait, you say, repetition is obvious, and though irritating, but it's easily edited. I Beg to differ. Because it's a lot more to it than simple repetition. It's sneaky; it comes in ways that are easy to miss. The brilliant Margie Lawson taught me that the best way to explain is with examples, so here goes. And a huge thank you for a brave writer who gave me permission to use her words.

Simple Repetition:

"Miss Fairchild?" A man called out my name. The first shows - the tag tells.

I had no idea what to say to that. "Um...thank you?" The dialogue line shows, the beginning is redundant.

Ethan didn't look after her. He was still looking at me. We need one or the other, but not both. The second tells us more than the first.

I walk on, dragging the clattering contraption behind. This one was mine. If you're walking, you have to be moving on, right? 'On' is redundant. See how small, but irritating this can be?

And I hurt. My whole body felt like a giant living bruise. The right side of my face throbbed. Both my hips and my left shoulder were bone-deep aches. You told, then did a great job of showing. You don't need the tell.

Info we don't need: This is subtler. I call this, 'trust your reader to get it'

I knocked a couple of times to get their attention. That's what a knock is for.

I shook my head. Get a grip, Summer.

"Everything okay?" Ethan had noticed the head-shake. His dialogue line makes it obvious that he noticed.

"I don't know any other Ethans." My attempt at a joke. Telling the reader it's a joke, ruins the joke!

I looked down at my hands and picked at my chipped nail polish. Where else would nail polish be? Okay, I'll give you that it could be on her toes - but picking at your toenails when you're talking to someone in public? My brain doesn't jump there (and that's just, ewwwwww).

Sentence is out of order: Maybe not exactly repetition, but it's close. This is another lesson I learned from Margie. We read linearly; so you can't give us a reaction before the reason for it.

I jumped. One of the waiters had come up beside us without me noticing. The jump can't come first.

I tore the plastic seal free and swung the bottle in a wide arc.

I got lucky. Clear, toxic, paint stripper caught Kai full in the face and Tak in one eye. You can't say, 'lucky' until we know how. You could put it at the end, but I'd make the case that you don't need it at all. The sentence 'shows' us she was lucky.

Name repetition:  A pronoun should be your go-to.The only reason you need to type the person's name is at the beginning of the scene, and if there are more than one of that gender in the scene, and the pronoun won't tell us whom is speaking. How often do you say someone's name in a conversation with them? Not often, I'll bet. Dialogue in fiction is real world, without the boring stuff. It's even more painful if the person has an odd, or difficult name--it gets obvious/irritating, fast.

"Thank you, Lara." Lieutenant Spadinski's lips parted in a polite smile. Something about the hard set of his chin and the harder set of his eyes made me think of a dog baring his teeth, but he sank into the seat.

I guessed Lieutenant Spadinski wasn't thrilled to be summoned to the Kane mansion, first thing on a Sunday morning. Outside his jurisdiction. Over a piece of graffiti. Besides, doesn't just typing that name get irritating?

“Do you want a coffee?” Eve asked. “You’re looking a little pale.”

Even Ethan’s hand, warm on the small of my back, wasn’t enough to distract me from the doubt churning in my gut. “Coffee sounds great, Eve. Thanks.”

Repetition is a sneaky little error, easily overlooked in editing. But if you do this a lot, the reader may never recognize it's bothering them--they'll just put your book down (and may never pick it back up). Once you get used to watching out for it, I promise, the repetition will jump off the page at you.

Is this something you're guilty of? (Hint: we all are). Will you share some of your repetitions with us in the comments?



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35 comments on “Redundant Writing - and How to Exorcise it”

  1. Thanks for this post. I just finished the *last* round of edits on my MS and shrunk it down by 2000 words (to 93K) by removing just this sort of repetition. You're right, they are sneaky and subtle. And now I have a name for them!

    1. WTG, Carol! Amazing how many there are, once you recognize them! I know your book is much faster and poignant for it. Are you related to Keith Cronin, by any chance?

  2. Thanks so much for this post that you wrote for the blog, Laura! It really helped me it because I found it so useful. I began to question my own writing and wonder if I did any of that when I wrote. But then I decided no, it wasn't true because it couldn't possibly apply to me.
    (LOL - the post is a spoof, of course! I recognize myself all too well in the examples and really did appreciate the post! Thank you!)

  3. Great post. Funny how you can catch them when you're critting another fellow author's work, but when it comes to your own, your eyes seem to glaze over them. My editor caught a few and I had to laugh, because I finished critiquing a friend's MS and mentioned redundancy. LOL.

    1. Oh Maggie, you're SO right! And your critters love catching something in yours you catch in theirs all the time! Makes them positively gleeful, I'm telling you.

  4. Oh, no! Chagrined over what I thought was brilliant prose and loads of marvelous productivity only to discover how many times I'd made a pitiful counter sinking maneuver...

    1. Chris, it's HARD to see in our writing! What I've found works best is to analyze every single sentence. Tedious and daunting, but that's how you write a dazzling read!

  5. What a great post! Thank you for enlightening me once again, Laura. I am so guilty of this. At least it's a fairly easy fix.

  6. Guilty, Your Honor! Found a few countersinks during my revision process. I excised one like one of your examples: "He clapped his hands to get their attention." Got rid of name calling in dialogue. I do that a lot. Reminds me of the comical repetition of Jack and Rose in Titanic. Thanks for using helpful examples!

  7. Brilliant. I use 'moved on' all the time but really, 'on' tells my readers nothing so why waste the space? I also do things like, 'she sat down in the chair' but I'm getting better at picking myself up on it and putting, 'she sat in the chair'. Thanks, as always Laura.

    1. Exactly, Littlemissw. And 'moving' is so generic as to be no help at all. Stride, charge, slink, stomp, but don't 'move!

      Yes, down, up, turn, are all way overused as well (by me, too!)

  8. This is one of my pet peeves, too, Laura (although I'm sure I'm also guilty of it). As you mentioned, it's really hard to see in your own writing. Case in point: in your own example of simple repetition above, you could also have eliminated the word "behind" from "I walk on, dragging the clattering contraption behind." :o)

  9. Laura—Thanks for an on point post with excellent examples. I'd never heard the term "countersink" until you brought it to my attention but immediately recognized that I am oh-so-guilty! I edit with one finger on the delete key and wrote a post about the delete key—the writer's best friend—citing comments by writers from Stephen King to Elmore Leonard and Janet Evanovich. Which means, I guess, we're ALL guilty. 😉

  10. Okay, I have a question that gets me all the time...what do you do whent here is more than one of a particular pronoun in the room. Two gals in a scene - who gets the "she?" Or at least do you have recommendations for how to make it less clunky?

    1. Great question, Jenny! Okay, if there's snappy dialog (read: one liners), you need one of the names every once in awhile, so the reader doesn't have to go back and to the math.

      Sometimes if you mention them alternately in one paragraph, it gets tricky, because 'she' refers to the last name mentioned. So:

      Becky knew she (that means Becky) couldn't top Sarah's put-down, so Becky walked away.

      It's clunky, so I'd probably rewrite the sentence, but I needed Becky's name the second time, because if I'd just said 'she', it would have referred back to Sarah.

      See what I mean?

  11. An excellent post, but I don't agree with two of your examples . To me, "walk on" is subtly different from "walk", in that "on" implies continuation (though it's hard to tell out of context). "I walked, dragging..." sounds odd, so if you lose "on" you would need to reconstruct the sentence. The other is "my attempt at a joke". I would interpret the emphasis there to be on "attempt" rather than "joke", in which case the phrase is not redundant. But again, out of context it is hard to tell. Some of the usual redundant words (up, down, etc) are used so often in speech that it's hard to remember in most cases they are redundant. We tell our kids to sit down, but tell the dog to sit. Wonder why that is.

    1. I agree, Virginia, context is everything! The joke one, it would have been clear from the preceding sentence that it was a joke.

      The walk on one, I think it would be stronger, reworded. I drag the clattering contraption...

  12. This post came at a perfect time, Laura! Right when I'm going through the final polish of a novella, and sure enough, I caught these repeats. Thank you!

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