How to spot — and remove — hidden redundancies for a cleaner page
In writing, clarity is achieved when you say as much as you can, as clear as possible, in as few words as makes sense. This means that one thing to focus on when editing is removing redundancies.
Some redundancies are easy to spot if you’re looking, like the one in the title of this article. Or like ‘ATM machine’ or ‘terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.’ However, not all redundancies are this straightforward. Finding and removing the sneakier ways that clarity evades your work can lead to stronger writing. Without redundancies, your work will pack a punch that makes it easier to understand, not harder.
Below, we’ll look at four kinds of insidious redundancies that can sneak into your writing, as well as how to fix them.
If a sentence uses the same word twice, there is probably redundancy. A common way this happens is reusing the ‘to be’ verb:
What was surprising during January was that the weather was actually warmer than expected.
This sentence is fourteen words, and three of them are ‘was.’ Let’s see what we can do to remove the redundancy, strengthen the verbs, and shorten the sentence. We should get some bonus clarity, too.
Surprisingly, January’s weather was warmer than expected.
Seven words, one ‘was.’ Same meaning. Can you see how that helps?
However, verbs aren’t the only words whose repetition could be a sign of redundancy. Let’s look at two more.
This morning, I lost my keys so I lost my temper.
This example gives us an opportunity to use one of my favorite literary devices, called a zeugma. It means using one word to link two thoughts. We can remove the second verb, and the words before it, and link the two thoughts by using the verb ‘lost’ only once, like this:
This morning, I lost my keys and my temper.
Zeugmas are, to me at least, delightful in how they play with words.
In the next example, the same word bookends the beginning and end of the sentence.
Being thoughtful and patient was the kind of person I always prided myself on being.
That bookended word shows us something is amiss, and could likely be fixed with a trip to the Department of Redundancy Department. This sentence structure is often the result of people trying to solve the critique (either from a human or from an editing AI like AutoCrit) of too many sentences opening with a pronoun. However, as I’ll discuss in a later article, reframing sentences to be awkward and redundant simply to avoid pronoun repetition only moves the wound; it doesn’t heal it. For now, let’s look at the simplest solution:
I always prided myself on being thoughtful and patient.
Just like that, we drop six words.
Awkward commas are another symptom of the same problem: a redundancy created, often, as a way out of starting too many sentences the same way. Curing the disease is a problem for another day, though. Today we’re looking at this symptom.
That is one of the things I’ve learned, how awkward commas are proof of insidious redundancy.
This sentence, like many with awkward commas, uses a pronoun (that), then defines the pronoun after a comma. We don’t need both. Once you know to look for it, this revision is pretty straightforward.
I’ve learned awkward commas prove insidious redundancy.
Here’s another one:
This is one of the kindest things he’d done, to help her in this way.
In this case, you can’t just remove the comma and start with the subject. You either start with the action or the kindness. We can look at both. Starting with the action:
Helping her was one of the kindest things he’d done.
Or starting with the kindness:
One of the kindest things he’d done was helping her.
I prefer the first — it feels stronger and more assertive to me — but both remove the redundancy, provide clarity, and shorten the sentence.
Identical opening and closing sentences
If the opening and closing sentences of a paragraph are identical, something has gone wrong. It could be mixing up introductions and conclusions, or thinking a conclusion should perfectly repeat an earlier thought. It could be someone forgetting what they said. But if the opening and closing sentences of a paragraph are identical, something has gone wrong.
In this case, removing the redundancy is as simple as figuring out which sentence is necessary and replacing the other one. In the paragraph above, I think I need the sentence as a thesis statement (and therefore the first sentence) more than I need it as a conclusion. Instead of restating the thesis, then, I can repurpose the first sentence of the next paragraph (and delete it there) to conclude the paragraph and transition to the next thought.
If the opening and closing sentences of a paragraph are identical, something has gone wrong. It could be mixing up introductions and conclusions, or thinking you can repeat the same sentence in a conclusion. It could be someone forgetting what they said. No matter the reason, the solution is to figure out which sentence is necessary and replace the one that is not.
Putting the same idea into dialogue and narrative
This example is specific to writing fiction or creative non-fiction. I found it in my own writing recently, and I think it’s a common way redundancy sneaks in to early drafts in particular. Below, the two regular type sentences and the two bold sentences are each saying the same thing. That is, I take four sentences to say two sentences of material.
It was now painfully clear that her mother knew — or at least had known — more about Celeste’s magic than she’d ever told her before. More than anything else, this realization drove her from defensiveness into something closer to fury.
Celeste’s anger was a wind that cleared the black spots from her vision. ‘You speak as if you know more about enchantment than what you’ve learned from raising me.’
When I look at it with my editor’s hat on, the first paragraph can be excised. Dialogue is stronger than internalization, and the second bold sentence shows anger in a way the first bold sentence tells. I’ll update ‘anger was’ to something stronger and more vivid, though.
Celeste’s fury grew into a wind that cleared the black spots from her vision. ‘You speak as if you know more about enchantment than what you’ve learned from raising me.’
What about redundancy for effect?
You know what they say about the rules: they’re more like guidelines anyway. However, any intentional repetition isn’t redundant because, by definition, redundancy is extraneous. Some good reasons for repetition include: verbose/talkative characters, aka repetition as a characterization tool, a la Miss Bates from Emma; creating ambiance or finding a rhythm akin to poetry, although this is tricky to do well; and to create callbacks and symbols.
Repetition, when well done, creates profundity that can’t otherwise be achieved. Redundancy, conversely, removes clarity. Words trip over themselves and end up in the way, instead of helping.
Which of these techniques can you apply to your writing today?
The Department of Redundancy Department and Other Problems was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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Author: Rochelle Deans