I don’t think there’s any single comment I make more frequently while editing a manuscript than “redundant.” It’s perhaps the number one cause of overwriting, which in turn is one of the most common issues faced by aspiring writers. If you’ve found yourself with a manuscript substantially longer than publishing industry standards—and even if you haven’t—there’s a very good chance you’re facing this issue as well.
I’ve written about overlong manuscripts in the past. There are several possible causes for an uncommonly long manuscript. Maybe you’re repeating the same points over and over again to try and create emphasis. Maybe you’re revealing too much information, and doing so from too many perspectives. It’s even possible that you’ve written more than one book.
Nothing is more important than being true to your book, and it’s always possible that yours earns its length, but more often than not an extraordinary word count is the result of a problem that will make readers more difficult to come by, agents and publishers more difficult to interest, and editors like me more expensive to hire. Since most independent editors base their rates on word count—the more words they need to edit, the more work they’re doing—cutting back on overwriting before editing can be a very smart idea.
This article is the first of a multi-part series designed to help you do exactly that.
Redundancy is one of the most common causes of overlong manuscripts. Because you, as the author, always know more about your own intent than your readers, it’s difficult to see from their perspective and determine how much information they need to understand your work.
This causes some authors to write too little. The result, underwriting, is also a very common concern, but not one that applies to overlong manuscripts.
Other authors write too much, what we call overwriting. And that’s what we want to focus on.
Redundancy takes many forms, but one of the most common is repetition.
Repetition Doesn’t Create Emphasis
Repetition, quite simply, is repeating the same thing multiple times, often in consecutive sentences. In the course of, say, a novel, repetition might look a lot like this:
Gregory was trapped, his ankles bound, in the space-dungeon of the space vampires. He kept pulling at the chain that held him, but he could not remove it. The space vampires had him trapped pretty good. No matter how hard he pulled, he could not escape. His ankles were bound, and though he struggled, there was no way out of the space vampires’ space-dungeon in space.
If you step back and analyze this paragraph, the repetition is pretty clear. The first sentence establishes the conflict—Gregory trapped in this space-dungeon of the space vampires—and the second shows him pulling at the chain but unable to remove it. These sentences are important, but the ones that follow are substantially less so. The notion that “the space vampires had him trapped pretty good,” for example, is already established by the first two sentences, in that we know Gregory is trapped and cannot remove the chain around his ankle. The fourth sentence notes that “no matter how hard he pulled, he could not escape,” but this is exactly the same thing we see in the second sentence with Gregory pulling at the chain but unable to remove it. We already know, as the last sentence says, that Gregory’s “ankles were bound,” and we also know that “he struggled” and that, at least so far, he can’t find a way “out of the space vampires’ space-dungeon in space.”
This example may seem exaggerated, but really it’s very consistent with what I see in overwritten manuscripts. The hypothetical author of this paragraph is working to emphasize the severity of the conflict—to ensure that readers feel and understand just how trapped at his protagonist is. This sort of repetition emerges in all sorts of different situations. Novelists use it to try to bring drama to major turning points or to convey the romance between their characters. Memoirists use it to nail down the meaning of important moments in their lives. Writers of prescriptive nonfiction use it to hammer home an argument and guarantee that readers truly understand the point they’re trying to make. And if you’ve found that your manuscript is a lot longer than it seems it should be, then there’s a pretty good chance you’re doing it too.
But the problem, and what makes this repetitive, is that the author is doing this without providing any new information—instead, only repeating the information we already have.
That’s the key: Repetition does not create emphasis.
How to Actually Create Emphasis
Emphasis, instead, comes from new information. If the author wants to bring more attention to Gregory’s plight, he might add that if Gregory doesn’t escape in the next half hour, the Earth will be destroyed. This is a new detail that would color our understanding of the situation. If the author wants to double down on the severity of Gregory’s imprisonment, he might have the chain cut through Gregory’s skin, causing his ankle to bleed—a detail that would demonstrate effectively Gregory’s efforts to escape while emphasizing his inability to do so.
Fundamentally, each sentence in a manuscript should add something that wasn’t there before. That’s how you best avoid redundancy in the form of repetition.
As you make your revisions, consider the meaning of each sentence and whether or not a previous sentence already has it covered. This process of interrogating every line can be tedious, but if it resolves problems with overwriting and makes your editor more affordable (and your chances of getting published more favorable), it’s well worth the effort.
The Balance Between Overwriting and Underwriting
Many authors struggle with providing the right amount of information at the right time. It’s certainly possible to overcorrect, and as I mentioned earlier, it happens often. Some authors write too much; others, too little. The process of finding that right balance between overwriting and underwriting is something I call recalibration, and it’s an inevitable part of growing as a writer.
How do you recalibrate? Here are a few ideas to keep in mind:
- Determine the contribution of each sentence. If a sentence doesn’t provide anything new, you can cut it.
- Don’t let the fear of underwriting cause you to keep overwriting. If you dwell on the problems of tomorrow, you can’t resolve the problems of today.
- Bring in the beta readers. Beta readers are more effective when they know what concerns to look out for—and they’re especially useful in determining from an outsider’s perspective if you really have cut too much.
When you internalize the dangers of repetition, you’ll find yourself with a manuscript that is not only shorter, but better, and ready to receive all sorts of useful additional feedback from your suddenly more affordable editor.
(Don’t miss the second installment in this series, which will show you how overwriting through point-of-view can underwhelm your readers.)
Have you been struggling with an overlong manuscript? Are you unsure if length is really the problem? Let us know in the Comments below!
And be sure to check back in with this blog next month to learn how overwriting can emerge also from point of view.
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.