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Redundant Redundancy is Redundant

July 10, 2015

I have a problem: When I’m reading, and especially when I’m editing, I’ll hit a phrase that repeats itself, and it makes me grumpy.

I have another problem: When I’m writing, I’ll occasionally write a phrase that repeats itself, because I don’t always notice at the time.

I have a third problem: It’s tricky to be a writer knowing you’re going to inevitably slip up on this, and it’s tricky to be an editor knowing you make the exact same mistake.

We all know the standard redundancy of Department of Redundancy Department or The raw fish had not been cooked. That’s not what I’m talking about today, because that kind of thing is reasonably easy to catch. I’d rather talk about the sneaky stuff, the kind of redundant phrasing that creeps up on you, hides behind curtains, mugs unsuspecting readers in alleys.

Let’s start with my pet peeve: off of. He jumped off of a building. She climbed off of a chair. There’s no reason for that of to be in there. It’s not adding meaning to the sentence. He can jump off a building and she can climb off a chair, and it’s the exact same motion. (For that matter, if she climbs down from a chair, she’s climbing off it too. One less word!)

Another example, getting more to the meat of things: to chop. Chop means “cut into small pieces” and has the connotation of “using a long metal object with a blade”. You can chop with a knife, or a sword, or a machete. You can’t really chop with scissors—that’s snip, hack, maybe slice. You certainly can’t chop with a spoon. Context will determine what sort of bladed object you’re meaning, so there’s no need to write something like Daniel was in the kitchen, chopping onions with a knife or Michelle chopped away the jungle vines with her machete.

(Unless that knife or that machete is going to come back later, as a murder weapon or something, or the point-of-view character is likely to notice it for some reason, like if they’re a chef or a zombie enthusiast. Then you’ve got a good reason to keep those bladed instruments in there.)

My third example is one that I’m especially guilty of: the redundancy of action. I keep writing my characters through sequences of actions that, if I just stopped to think a moment, I’d realize most if not all readers would assume took place regardless of whether I wrote them down. Things like, I left the house, shutting and locking the door behind me or I put down my groceries to unlock my car and then put them in the back seat. Why I can’t just say I left the house or I put the groceries in the back seat, I don’t know. When I catch that sort of thing, I cut it out, preferably reworking the scene so that I don’t even have to talk about houses or groceries because who actually cares about that stuff? I’m pretty sure even my characters don’t.

Basically my advice here is to spend an editing pass looking carefully at phrases and the meanings of certain words, asking yourself if they need to be there, if events will be understood without them, if they presuppose something you’ve already written down. Maybe a couple editing passes, even, because I know how these redundancies sneak through. Don’t worry in the moment like I do, because first drafts are for getting everything on paper and hopefully achieving a sort of flow from brain to fingers to pages and subsequent drafts are for cutting the weaker writing out again. With a machete. Or maybe a scalpel.

Spotting redundancies like this might be tricky to get the hang of, but I think it’s a good skill to develop. It’ll make your writing tighter, at least, and tighter’s a good thing. Loose writing tends to gum up the works a bit, for writers and for readers, or at least that’s what I’ve found and the impression I get from editors and agents as well.

Good luck, though! And wish me luck as well.

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