Sunday, January 2, 2011


Have you ever noticed how annoying it can be to have to listen to someone who repeats themselves? I sure have.  (I'll do you the favor of not repeating the question here.)  In a class on mass media in high school, I learned about repetition and reinforcement; that's how advertising tries to hammer home its message.  We call this intentional repetition.  I'm talking about the unintended variety.  (Note that I used unintended rather than unintentional to eliminate a verbatim repetition.)  Unintentional repetition is not just annoying: it diverts your attention from the rest of what the person has to say.

We dread (or we should, anyway) unintentional repetition in our writing.  We have to be careful also of purposeful repetition to ensure it doesn't become distracting, but that's another issue.

I recently finished reading Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" -- a fairly massive and very complex book.  It has nearly 800 pages, roughly 400 characters (including a sentient light-bulb), and it-feels-like-200 digressions.  It's packed with esoteric trivia, it changes narrators and voices, and bounces around in time.  The book is hard to follow.

And I noticed a repetition of a distinctive phrase used near both the end and the beginning of the book.  I can't recall what the phrase was, and I was reading in hard copy so I couldn't do a search and find the earlier occurrence, though that would have been a cool party trick on an e-reader.  In a way it's surprising that I'd notice the repetition among all the crazy things flying by me in the book.  But it's not really surprising at all.

That's why we have to be very careful.  Repetition like that is not easy for a writer to catch, and perhaps not for anyone else reading the manuscript multiple times.

We each have to find a way.

1 comment:

  1. Happy Healthy New Year, John!
    You're right, repetition is annoying. But after going through the revision and ediorial process I can certainly see how it occurs. It's hard to edit the book as a whole. Typically if one section works, you move on to the next. How many times can you honestly read the book from cover to cover? By the time I was finished editing my manuscript I was sick of it. Hated it. Then there are the editorial editions from your editor and the copy editor, added after you've completed your final revisions. Yes you have a say, but not a final say. The publisher has final approval, not the least not until you're on Nora Roberts level. Maybe. All I can say is after going through the frustrations of the process I am a little less critical of the author when I see a mistake in a book.