“Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect.” – Roy Peter Clark.
I’ve mentioned before Roy Peter Clark’s perfect podcast of his “Fifty Writing Tools”. The terrible book* I’m reading violates every rule listed (this is not an exaggeration), and the one that most annoys me is its repetition of key words.
In a normal story, the word “impassive”, to describe someone’s body language or statements, would be used sparingly. In this book, it is used 28 times. Every 13 pages or so. That’s common enough to unsettle the stomach.
But that is not even the worst offender. No, it would seem that “flush” wins the prize. Any time the main character experiences the slightest surprise (and she is surprised by everything that happens in her world), she “flushes” and her breath usually “hitches”. “Flush” or “flushes” appears a staggering 113 times. That’s, get this, every 3.3 pages.
The word has lost all meaning. It’s like the author has a tick. It just appears, “unbidden” (as she would say, 11 times in the story), and unwelcome.
Clark suggests that, if you are using key words, you must give them room to breath. They need to make their point, and then get out of the way. If you keep bringing them back, over and over, the point is lost.
It reminds me of my favourite exchange from Pixar’s The Incredibles:
Dash: But Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of. Our powers made us special.
Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.
Dash: Which is another way of saying no one is.
If everyone is special, no one is. If every word is key, no word is.
*It will be revealed next week, if you haven’t already guessed.