An editor’s notebook: when repeated words are the author’s “binky”

Photo: Dave Lawler via Flickr

Which words does your author come back to again and again? As an editor, your eye and ear must detect these repetitions, but that’s not sufficient. You need to understand why the author comes back to them and suggest fixes that improve meaning, rather than just creating variety.

In a business book I recently edited, the authors had a problem: they needed to describe a wide variety of different strategies and scenarios and tell how to deal with them. A writer in these situations has a challenge: how do you make each scenario seem notable and useful? This is where the author can fall into a trap of using words — and often the same words — to inflate the importance of the passage. These words become a “binky” — like a blanket or a teddy bear, the author comes back to them to feel secure. But when you repeat such words enough, the reader becomes numb to them. It creates a sort of “emphasis inflation” that undermines the whole text.

In the case of this book, I wrote an editor’s memo in response to the first few chapters that explained a number of editorial decisions affecting the manuscript globally. Here’s what I wrote about repeated words in that memo:

Repeated words (weasel words)

In my book and blog I write frequently about “weasel words,” which is a term that refers to qualifiers and intensifier words without specific meanings. Think of words like “massive” or “truly” – they don’t actually measure anything, they’re just intended to make things sound more important. The problem is that the constant repetition of these words creates a dullness in the reader’s mind – each one creates resistance (is it actually all that “massive?”) and they pile up, causing a lack of credibility. If everything is awesome, then nothing is actually all that awesome.

It’s not just me; the writing expert Steven Pinker writes about the same thing in his popular book The Sense of Style.

You can read this post for more info: https://withoutbullshit.com/blog/how-to-fix-weasel-words

In these chapters about data, you repeat these words over and over. They become a litany that annoys the reader. I’ve deleted a bunch, changed others to be less intrusive, and left a few. The result will be to make the ones that remain more believable, and improve the overall text.

I did a few searches on the whole text to demonstrate the repetition problem. Here are the numbers:

  • Very (270 uses). Obviously, you need this word, but this level of repetition makes it impotent.
  • Many (183). Meaningless, but repeated endlessly.
  • Focus (93). You can’t focus on 93 things. I reduced the number of instances.
  • Leverage (74). This is a verb rather than an adjective or adverb, but despite its murky meaning it seems to be your all-purpose verb. Your repetition of this word comes off as a writing tic; every reader will notice it. Because its meaning is indefinite, it makes all your writing seem less specific and effective. I’ve eliminated as many uses of this as I can.
  • Specific (72). In most cases, what this means in the sentence is not clear. Deleting this word generally doesn’t change the meaning of these sentences.
  • Significant (68). Has a statistical meaning, but here, just means “not insignificant.” If it wasn’t significant, why would you even include it? In most cases, you can just delete this word and the meaning is the same.
  • Massive (40). That’s a lot of massive data sets.
  • Countless (26). A lot of repetition of a word that means “a lot.”
  • Enormous (25). See massive.
  • Outstanding (18). Used here to just mean “good” in a vague way. Make more specific.
  • Truly (18). Usually intensifies another weasel word, like “truly massive.” You can’t fix the problem of repeated intensifiers by adding still more intensifiers.
  • Vast (18). See massive.
  • Huge (7). See massive.
  • Staggering (6). Obviously, not used that often compared to massive. But in these two chapters, the level of repetition stood out. This is a potent word, and it’s more powerful if you only use it when it’s really accurate.

As a friend of mine used to say, “Cheer down.” My edits will leave the text less breathless but equally meaningful, and allow the remaining intensifiers to be more believable.

Providing perspective

Let’s be fair. If you sent me a manuscript, I could create a list just like this of words that you overuse. We all have these problems. But by doing a search and putting them all in one place, I make it easier for the authors to see the huge, massive, staggering, outstanding, and truly significant magnitude of the problem. I provide perspective. This makes them much more likely to address the problem.

Notice a few things about this list:

  • “Very” is a common word. Using it 100 times in a 60,000-word manuscript would not be unusual. But it tops this list because at 270, there’s clearly too much of it.
  • There are adverbs, adjectives, and verbs here. While adverbs like “truly” are often a sign of trouble, as an editor, you need to look out for other parts of speech as well.
  • “Leverage” was a particular problem for these authors. It was definitely a binky word here. But it also turned out to be an important word in some places. By reducing the use of “leverage” by 80%, we could make it more descriptive and accurate in the remaining places we used it.
  • Look at the bottom of the list. Six uses of “staggering” in 60,000 words is not obsessive. Nor is seven uses of “huge” or 18 uses of “vast.” But these are extreme words that draw attention to themselves, and amongst all the other words like “enormous” and “outstanding” and especially “significant” they contribute to the problem. If a data set is actually staggering in size (say, all clicks of everyone who used Google in the last year), then that massiveness is a lot more notable if you haven’t described lots of other data sets as massive.

Counting repeated words is easy with a tool like Microsoft Word. It helps you make a list like this for your author, and removes the question of repetition from the realm of opinion. There are 74 instances of “leverage” in this manuscript; that’s not in doubt. The question is, is that a problem, and what should we do about it?

Looking through the text, most of the time I just deleted the intensifiers. This typically left the meaning unchanged, and allowed the remaining intensifiers to stand out.

In the case of verbs (“focus”, “leverage”), you can’t just delete them. I suggested rewrites for these sentences, sometimes using different verbs, and sometimes changing the structure entirely. For example, I recommended changing this:

This specialization continues to thrive as businesses no longer need to focus upon one customizing the software to their particular use case, and most are willing to pay a premium for POS [point-of-sale] software that is designed for their use case.

To this:

This specialization ensures that businesses no longer need to customize the software to their particular use case, and most are willing to pay a premium for POS software that is designed for their type of business.

Editors must psychoanalyze meaning

A good editor identifies and corrects repeated words.

A great editor asks why they are there.

There is typically a reason. There might be a more general point that the writer is making by repeating something. The writer may be afraid that without a big word, she sounds naive and simplistic. Or it may just be a writing habit that was never visible until the writer had put 60,000 words together in one place.

If you can figure out why words are repeated, you can not only make the text less annoying to read, you can help the author to make it more meaningful.

That’s a lot better than just taking their binky away.

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