A comment on one of our blogs the other day got me to thinking—always a dangerous sign. Really, folks, you shouldn’t stir my dusty brain cells. You never know what will explode out of them.
A reader complained about an author having “of course-itis,” apparently using the phrase repeatedly throughout the book and often multiple times on a single page. And while I totally sympathize with the reader who asked where in heck her editor was, I also suffer from this habit of repeating phrases and words, so my brain started ticking.
I have been accused by my critique partner of having at least one word or phrase per book that pops
up repeatedly and with irritating frequency. Until she made me aware of this, I never noticed. But she was totally and completely right. Once I started looking for the word or phrase, it was everywhere. It was ugly. How many times can one use the word “actually” in a sentence? Listen to a TV news reporter sometime. See what I mean? Teenagers can’t talk without the word “like” and there are some people who can’t utter a complete sentence without a four-letter curse in it.
These wordbugs are like earwigs—music that gets stuck in your brain and won’t leave you alone. Usually, it’s the most trite and awful of music, and the wordbugs are generally simple things like “of course,” or “actually,” or “calmly,” or something that describes one of the characters in your head, so it just keeps popping out.
I’d like to hear a scientific explanation of this phenomenon, but I have several theories in the case of
writing, at least. Speculating on teenagers and TV announcers is out of my realm. One possibility is that the subconscious part of the brain is quicker than the conscious when we’re writing. The creative process requires that we go deep inside our brains where weird things dwell, and when we’re in full swing, we’re not thinking about grammar or punctuation or anything except getting all the details of a scene onto the page. Emotions, actions, dialogue, settings, fly from our fingers at great rates of speed, and the brain simply grabs the words that are easiest to reach—like the one we just used a dozen times. It’s like sticking “uh” after every word while we grope for the next one.
The other theory is similar, except it happens when we’re editing. That’s the wordbug theory. I don’t know how many times I’ve caught myself skimming over a completed chapter, looking for
things that need tweaking, and suddenly deciding that a line needs a certain word, let’s say “calmly,” only to discover that word had just been used. My brain read it, liked it, and decided it went better elsewhere. Happens all the time. Don’t know if the word got stuck in my brain or my eye, but it stuck somehow, and if I let it, it would pop out over and over again. But if I have to chase down synonyms for it, it scampers off quickly, never to be heard from again.
I really don’t know if wordbugs happen because we’re writing too fast or because our brains are losing their elasticity with age. <G> I just know they happen. I never used to have half a dozen people reading over my manuscripts to catch these phrases, but then, I’ve never gone back and read my old books to see if they happen. I’m not ready to admit an aging brain yet! But the bugs are truly hard to catch. If you spend a year writing a book, you can’t possibly remember every word you wrote in that year. I read and re-read mine as I write, but I’m generally re-reading for a purpose, and wordbugs aren’t high on my agenda. By the time I reach the editing stage, entire sentences are engraved on my brain and I can’t separate out these idiot bugs easily. That’s why I rely on outside readers who see the material fresh to catch the irritations. My editors and my copyeditors still find more, even after the book has been carefully gone over several times. And I’ve caught them doing the same thing—adding a word used in the paragraph before because it stuck in their heads.
Does anyone else notice this in their own conversation or writing? I know it’s not just writers because I hear it all the time in the way people speak. How do you cull these repetitive words from your speaking? Your writing?
Oh, and my publicity people would be upset if I don’t mention that I’ll be chatting tonight, along with Jenna McKnight, on www.coffeetimeromance.com at 9PM EST if anyone would like to pop by and say hi!