There’s a radio game show here in the UK called Just A Minute. A panel of professional wits are challenged to speak for ‘just a minute’ on a variety of subjects, without repetition, deviation and something else I’ve forgotten, and if they commit any of those sins, the other players get to challenge them and take over the subject.
Listening to it the other night started a train of thought, about a phenomenon I’ve noticed quite a few times when I’ve been editing a manuscript.
Actually make that most times.
It’s not something you’d see when you’re reading, largely because if the editor has done his/her job properly, it should have been spotted and dealt with long before the manuscript appears as a book. And the reason the radio show made me think about it is simple – it’s repetition. Of a word. Not the same word every time, obviously; but a single word that appears in the course of a manuscript just a little too often for comfort.
I’m not talking about ‘the’ or ‘and’ or even ‘said’. The Word, as I’ve begun to think of it, is a ‘strong’ word: usually (though not always) a descriptive or qualifying word, and usually (though not always) one which has several meanings or senses depending on the context. And it seems to become attached to all kinds of phrases, as if it got stuck in the author’s mind.
Recent examples are preposterous; soft; dark. I’ve worked on a couple of manuscripts in which the characters did a lot of shrugging. In another the word count dropped noticeably when I took out all the nodding and shaking of heads.
If the authors in question are reading this, they’ll (mostly) know who they are. In each case they were quick to assure me it wasn’t deliberate; in fact they had no idea they’d done it until I flagged it up.
And hands in the air, it’s something I’ve been guilty of myself – which is probably why it’s something I notice in other people’s work. A good friend who is also an editor offered feedback on my last (unpublished) novel, and right there, top of the list of comments in block capitals underlined twice was TAUT. Twenty-three times I used that word: an average of twice every chapter. It described, among other things, silences and atmospheres, the protagonist’s skin texture, a sheet on a hospital bed... it’s been a while and I forget what else, but I’m still embarrassed to think about it.
That’s the trouble with words, though, isn’t it? Writers are urged to choose ‘strong’ words, the kind that carry a lot of meaning in a small package, so there’s no need for lengthy description or explanation – then before you know where you are, one of those strong words has clung like a limpet and attached itself to far too many situations and you just don’t see it. I noticed just the other day, flicking back through a file of short stories in search of something to rework as a way of kickstarting my long-idle Muse, that I’d used ‘echo’ twice in the same paragraph. Not quite as heinous as twenty-three ‘taut’s, but not to be allowed to pass nonetheless.
Some authors tell me this is why they need an editor: to pick up on this kind of thing when their own critical eye has begun to see what’s in their mind, not what’s on the page. Now, that is the kind of author I really enjoy working with.