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Perseveration and crutches and uniques, oh my - Lakeshore
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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-03-28 05:58
Subject: Perseveration and crutches and uniques, oh my
Security: Public
Tags:madness, process, writing
Working on Madness of Flowers drove home for me one of the basics of my writing. I am death on word echoes. To me, those are almost the epitome of bad style. Sadly, no matter how carefully I read for them, I always miss some. (Is there a regular expression which finds duplicate text strings within N characters?)

Echoes seem to rise from several sources. They're interesting to me, as a sort of window into my writing process. Note that some words don't count as echoes -- common verbs, pronouns, etc. For others, the echo factor has to do with proximity. A character name feels like an echo if its repeated twice in one sentence, but not every paragraph or two. An unusual adjective, say /vainglorious/, can be an echo if it appears twice in the same manuscript. Monotonous, repetitive sentence or paragraph structures can really point up words which might not otherwise echo so intensely either.

The key is whether the word draws attention to itself, and distracts the reader thereby.

Perseveration

Perseveration is when I get a word lodged in my mind while writing, and it appears several times across two or three pages. So for example, I might have /enspelled/. Which has loads of synonyms and near-synonyms. (One of the great glories of writing in English is our ridiculously large and varied vocabulary.) /enscorcelled/, /enchanted/, /caught within a glamer/, /magicked/, etc. If I'm looking over a manuscript and I see /enspelled/ more than once, unless there's a very good reason for it, I go on a scorched earth hunt for the sucker.

Crutches

Crutch words are a special case of perseveration. While perseveration (nice echo, huh?) tends to drop off after a couple of pages, crutch words (or phrases) echo throughout a manuscript. In Madness of Flowers, one of my crutches was "For one", as in "For one, she's a right bastard and she'll kill us all." Almost without exception, that tag was a de-intensifier that I cut on rewriter -- it was a mental equivalent of saying /um/ in speech, a stall while I worked out what was coming next. It's been a different word or phrase in other books and stories, but I always seem to have a few of them.

Uniques

Occasionally, even in this language you have words or phrases with few good synonyms or substitutions. Volcanoes erupt, for example. There aren't a lot of other verbs for that. (Feel free to diss me on this in comments, but the basic point holds true.) You can talk about lava rippling or fountains of molten rock or pyroclastic flows, but there's only so many ways to say "the volcano erupted." There's a point at which the contortions to avoid the echo become more artificial than the echo itself.

I hate that.

Clunks

Then there's just good old-fashioned clunks. For example, this language doesn't do a lot with pronoun case. The sentence, "Susie gave Jane her purse." is inherently ambiguous. Whose purse did Susie give to Jane? You can write around it to some degree, but the simple fact is that native English speakers cope with these ambiguities every day with little to no confusion. Generally there is plenty of context by the time you get to a sentence like that. Likewise, the degree of repetition required of a major character name can turn into a clunk.

Everything about an echo is dependent on the situation, of course. But for me personally, it's one of the greatest offenses in my own writing, and something I go to great lengths to manage. Maybe someday I'll get it right.
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Swan Tower: *writing
User: swan_tower
Date: 2007-03-28 13:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
I found myself unreasonably irritated by the number of times China Mieville used the word "cosseted" in The Scar. It was maybe half a dozen times, tops, in the entire novel, but the word is unusual enough that it caught my eye, especially because it wasn't in the context of "they cosseted their small child" but rather "the shadows cosseted the man" -- which a) doesn't make sense to me (the shadows pampered him?) and b) is weird enough to draw my eye every time it happens.
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Rafe
User: etcet
Date: 2007-03-28 14:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I ran across this, most recently, in Trial of Flowers; specifically, with "nouminal." It seemed to be everywhere ... except, of course, my dictionary (internal or external).

Numinous? Sure.
Numerous? You betcha.
Nominal? Check.
Nouminal... Non-recognized character string. Abort, Retry, Fuck up completely?

"Land... Land... Land... See: Snatch." ;-)
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2007-03-28 15:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I hadn't come across "noumenal" before Trial of Flowers (and I have a fairly extensive vocabulary, or so I like to think). It was fairly clear from context, perticularly when opposed with "phenomenal" (in the strict, Greek sense, rather than the pointless-superlative sense).

I figured the repeated use was very deliberate, as a specific rather than an overused, weakened generic like "occult" or "arcane" or "magical",
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Rafe
User: etcet
Date: 2007-03-28 16:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I agree with you; it was just particularly distracting (to me).
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robin catesby
User: deedop
Date: 2007-03-28 14:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
We just finished our latest bedtime reading -- Game of Thrones -- and I noticed instances of perseveration throughout. It was only occasionally jarring, but it caught my attention enough for me to make a mental note to be more diligent about my own work. Also, I can't help but wonder if my reading the novel aloud made the echoes far more noticeable than they'd be if I were reading to myself. (Possible additional data point toward the extreme benefits of reading your work aloud while editing.)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-03-28 14:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actually, yes, in my experience read aloud catches a lot of this stuff. :D
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kellymccullough
User: kellymccullough
Date: 2007-03-28 15:16 (UTC)
Subject: Carryovers
I have a very organized mind, and if I don't reread at least 1,000 words of yesterday's writing, I will occasionally rewrite not just words, but whole sentences or even paragraphs almost verbatim--because I'd already framed the idea in my mind in those terms.
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2007-03-28 15:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Clunks - "Susie gave her purse to Jane" would establish it as Susie's, without a doubt. To establish it as Jane's is much trickier without getting clunky.

Uniques - there are usually alternatives, but they may not bne as effective (volcanoes erupt, but they also spew forth, jettison , eject...). I recently wrote something in which "formless" and "shapeless" got overused, partly because I couldn't switch to "Protean" (which I might otherwise have fallen back on) because I'm in a faux-Chinese setting so feel referencing Proteus would be tantamount to breaking the fourth wall.

I find crutches most often chase me around withdialogue, when particular characters (or classes of character - generic soldier #3...) have particular speech patterns and end up overusing particular idioms.

And perseveration - well, yes, we all have our favourite words or phrases. This i where the read-aloud is best, because you tend to notice them much more aurally than visually. I don't read aloud as much as I shoul, because it can really test your pacing and sentence structure and cadence and beats and flow and all that kinda shit.
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joycemocha
User: joycemocha
Date: 2007-03-28 15:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Echoes. Ah yes.

I get annoyed by echoes both in my writing and in reading what others write. My echoes tend to be verbal placeholders--the "mind yous," "However," and other circumlocations which point to a weak spot in the writing.

I find an occasional review of Strunk and White is helpful, especially the "Omit needless words!" section.

With clunks I find that often I need to think them out, and that there's usually a clearer way to write what I intended.

I also find that echoes jump out at me on reviews and rewrites. Often they're placeholders for further exposition or expansion into more detail, and they seem to operate as a signal to me to look at that particular section and blow it up a bit more.

I may write a lot of echoes in the 4:30 am creation phase; however, the evening rewrite usually fixes them.
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juliabk
User: juliabk
Date: 2007-03-28 16:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm sure there's a formal word for this particular situation, but for the life of me I can't bring it to mind. I think of it as the $50 Word Phenomenon. You're going along and the writer (which could be oneself) is happily spending words in the $15 to $25 range where appropriate. Then all the sudden they break the bank by picking up a bright shiny $50 word and drop it there on the knick-knack shelf for everyone to admire. The only problem is folks'll look at it, they'll be terribly impressed because they can tell it cost a fortune, but they'll never admit they have no idea what it is. And all the while they're looking at it and trying to pretend they know exactly what it's for, the poor story has come to a dead stop and is slowly sinking in the mire.

(Note to self: stop reading Twain before bed.)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-03-28 16:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have often been accused of this particular sin.
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juliabk
User: juliabk
Date: 2007-03-28 16:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Jay? Hold out your hands. Just hold them out straight. Right, just like that.

*THWACK*

Now stop that! :-)

Don't make me hide your keyboard.
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Bibbit: words
User: bridget_coila
Date: 2007-03-28 19:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:words
accused says the man...

We're gonna have to hold some kind of kangaroo court for this one... I can see it already...

B
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juliabk
User: juliabk
Date: 2007-03-28 19:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Nope. There's no defense. If you're going to use $50 words, then use them, but don't mix 'em up with the $15 and $20 words. That's just mean to the reader.
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dinogrl
User: dinogrl
Date: 2007-03-29 00:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
(Hee) I have to agree with juliabk, however, sometimes [your] peccability is a good thing. We need to stretch our grey matter for a moment of clarification.
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User: blzblack
Date: 2007-03-28 17:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There's a point at which the contortions to avoid the echo become more artificial than the echo itself.

I hate that.


Me, too.

I happen to enjoy word echoes if purposeful.
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desperance
User: desperance
Date: 2007-03-29 18:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for saying that - I will quite often echo a word entirely deliberately, sometimes several times (playing games with its meaning, perhaps, or its place in the sentence, or its weight in the rhythms of the prose...).
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-03-29 18:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I often repeat, but rhetorical or stylistic repetition -- for emphasis, prosody, etc. -- isn't an echo. I was thinking specifically of unconscious or unintended repetition.
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User: blzblack
Date: 2007-03-29 20:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Repetition sounds like a bad thing; an echo sounds good.
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User: deangc
Date: 2007-03-28 19:58 (UTC)
Subject: Sadly...
Is there a regular expression which finds duplicate text strings within N characters?

Sadly, I could do this in SQL. (This is sad because 1. nobody sane would ever want to do this in SQL and 2. because I am such a geek that I see this question and know right away how I would do it in SQL. THAT, my friends, is geekery.)

Hunting down and eradicating this sort of echo is one of the reasons I dislike revision, because it's difficult, particularly in the case of character names. Sometimes, there's only so much you can do, and it ends up feeling like a compromise.
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juliabk
User: juliabk
Date: 2007-03-28 20:04 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Sadly...
Join with me Brother Geek in a rousing chorus of "All Hail the Great SQL Select Where Functions!"

My worst crime of this nature is the word "that". I perform "thatectomies" on everything I write, up to and including LJ comments. ;-)
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r0ck3tsci3ntist - sorry, kidding: frank
User: r0ck3tsci3ntist
Date: 2007-03-28 20:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:frank
Echoes seem to rise from several sources.

We've had a rash of high fevers in my house and I must have used "brutal" in about five things I wrote earlier this week. :p
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2007-03-30 03:43 (UTC)
Subject: echoes
It's not the same as "let me know if you catch the same string within 5 words," but if you catch one echo, you can search for further reverberations by using search-and-replace to change the font or color.

And, anent $50 words -- if it's precisely the right word, I don't care how much it costs.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-03-30 04:26 (UTC)
Subject: Re: echoes
Good suggestion
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