Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Things I Do Wrong (But You Don't Have To): Redundant Sentences

Once upon a time, when I was in the writing program at school, my very wise professor pointed out a tendency I had in my writing. What I did was to write a summary of a sentence or a paragraph and then flesh out that summary in what followed. I know what you're thinking: wait, isn't that what you're supposed to do in essays? And the answer is: this was fiction.

I'm not sure my explanation is entirely clear, so let me just give you an example:

I understand why people find it so easy to trust him. He makes you feel that all will be well; that if you just placed everything in his hands, he would take care of it while you rest.

Okay, let's not pretend that's a stroke of brilliance, or anything. But do you see what I mean? "He makes you feel that all will be well" is essentially a more general summary of "that if you just placed everything in his hands, he would take care of it while you rest." I don't need both of those sentences to exist. I should go with the more specific one, which is the second one, because it's more interesting.

And actually, come to think of it, I don't need the preceding sentence-- "I understand why people find it so easy to trust him"-- either, because it's basically introducing the sentiment that I expressed in the third part, only in a less subtle way.

After eliminating those extraneous sentences/clauses, you get this:

He makes you feel that if you just placed everything in his hands, he would take care of it while you rest.

Now, I'm still not sure if that's the best way to say what I'm trying to say, but at least it isn't redundant.

This can also be done with paragraphs and even scenes. If you start off a scene by saying something like "The next day I learned exactly what he meant by that," or "By the end of the next day I wasn't so sure," and so on, you take the joy of discovering what comes next away from the reader. Part of the joy of reading is doing mental work as you read. I don't mean "work" as in the reader has to fight to understand what's going on or what you're saying. I mean that they have to discover each thing as it comes to them. So we, as writers, have to make them do the work of discovery, or else reading is boring.

The thing is, if I hadn't written the first two sentences above, I never would have arrived at the third sentence, the one I ended up going with. That's why this is a revision concern, not an initial draft writing concern. I actually need the first two sentences, but the reader does not, and that's something I only think about while revising.

My writing professor changed my writing when she pointed that out, so I thought I would mention it to you as something to watch for when you revise.

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