Friday, July 7, 2017

Repeat Offenders: How to Catch Those Pesky Phrases

I covered repeat word usage in a guest post over at Killer Nashville back in May, yet from the perspective of a debut author who was getting the hang of his longform writing craft. My man Alex Segura, on the other hand, is not only prolific but acclaimed. I asked him to contribute to this week's question, partly because I trust he had the goods, but also to prove my friends are dope and we do dope sh*t.

Alex is a novelist and comic book writer who is the author of the Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery novels, which include SILENT CITY, DOWN THE DARKEST STREET, and DANGEROUS ENDS, all via Polis Books. He's also the scribe of a number of comics, including the best-selling and critically acclaimed ARCHIE MEETS KISS storyline, the “Occupy Riverdale” story, and the ARCHIE MEETS RAMONES and THE ARCHIES one-shots. Then there are his short stories and articles which have been featured in several noted anthologies, The Daily Beast, and more. If anyone can help, it's Alex.

- dg

Repeat Offenders: How to Catch Those Pesky Phrases
Alex Segura

Finding and crushing repeat phrases can be tough - but it's part of the game of revision, and therefore very important. The last thing you want is someone reading your book and saying "damn, why do they keep writing 'knowing smile'?" or something along those lines. You want your prose to feel fresh, alive and thoughtful. Overused phrases are basically typos to a reader because they suggest a lack of oversight on the author's part. So, yeah. Not good.

I find I repeat a lot of phrases in a first draft - it's enough to dishearten you. But it's also to be expected. First drafts tend to do that. They're sloppy, disconnected and a byproduct of you, the writer, slapping stuff together to simulate a novel. When I look at a first draft for what it is - a means to an end, a foundation for something more complete - I feel better about it. The first draft is a step to the final, and it's not something you need to share with the world. I certainly don't.

I think you need yo read your book in different ways to get a sense of what needs to be fixed and what words have to be changed. You need to zoom out and look at plot, structure, and pacing but you also need to fo the granular, word-by-word analysis. The big picture stuff, for me, usually comes from just treating the draft like any other book you'd read, and engaging with it in the same way, be it on your e-reader or printed out. I tend to print it out. I read without a red pen in my hand, because I want to experience the book, not spellcheck. If something big sticks out at me, I'll make a note later. By the end of the reading, I have general ideas of what I need to fix, and I revise. I often do this a few times, along with many pure copyedit reads, where I'm marking up the pages and then inputting the changes. You have to put in the time, otherwise, the final result will not be what you want, and it'll be too late to fix.

In terms of catching repetitive phrases, a lot of those get flagged from reading the book aloud. I always try to spend a week or two just reading my draft out loud, as if I were narrating the audiobook. It's a great way to flush out awkward phrases, over-used words and polish dialogue. I can't recommend it enough.

In closing - don't worry about repeat phrases during the first draft. But be ready to murder them after that.


Susan C Shea said...

Two plusses in this post - an emphasis for me on something I need to curb - the overused phrases in the first drafts that I might slide by if not tuned in carefully in edits, and Danny's introduction to Minds of an intriguing new writer. Thanks, Danny, thanks Alex.

RM Greenaway said...

Hi Alex. I'm in the middle of those last-chance edits right now, and this post is a nice piece of encouragement. Thanks for joining in.

Paul D. Marks said...

I think we're so used to using certain words they become invisible to us, so as you suggest, it's a good idea to read our stuff in a variety of ways to try to catch them. Thanks for guesting here, Alex.

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