Hunting Down the ‘Pesky Pleonasm’ by Heidi Thomas
I learned a new term not long ago: Pleonasm.
Is it a murder suspect? A graffiti artist? A practical joker?
Turns out, it’s nothing quite so mysterious. A pleonasm is a word or phrase, which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, John walked to the chair and sat down. “Down” is a pleonasm and can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Although I was not familiar with the term, I did know them when I saw them. In fact, part of my editing advice revolves around deleting extraneous words. Words such as “that,” “very,” “both,” and “there was.” Others might include “began,” “started,” or “continued.”
Here’s another phrase that nearly everyone is guilty of: “The sky held a myriad of stars.” Myriad means “countless.” So the correct use is “The sky held myriad stars.” (Simply substitute the word countless for myriad.) That eliminates two extraneous words.
And then there is the word “unique.” We are inundated with varying degrees of “uniqueness” every day: “That was a rather unique movie.” “Your story is very unique.” What’s next—uniquely unique? Unique means “the only one of its kind.” Unique is unique. It doesn’t need any modifiers.
I also caution to watch use of “ly” words. These words are often used to prop up weak verbs. For example: “She walked quickly” can be stronger if written “She strode” (or bounded or rushed). Likewise with the “to be” verbs (was, were, had been, etc.) especially when used with an “ing” verb. “She was walking” is better as “She walked.”
Some authors like to use taglines (he said, she said) plus an action: “…she said, taking a sip of coffee.” The simple action is sufficient: “She took a sip of coffee.” You also don’t need to describe two actions at once: She nodded and smiled. He puffed himself up and took a swig…
A writer friend of mine is looking at every sentence in her manuscript and challenging herself to remove at least one word from each. She has cut 14,000 words from a 400-page manuscript.
I challenge you to go one step farther: see if you can delete an entire phrase from a sentence, an entire sentence from a paragraph, a paragraph from a scene.
Hunt down and exterminate those “Pesky Pleonasms.”
Here is a handy checklist from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This is a book I recommend to my editing clients and something I like to look at for my own work every so often.
- How many ing and as phrases do you write? Remember, the only ones that count are the ones that place a bit of action in a subordinate clause.
- How about ly adverbs. Both tied to your dialogue and within your descriptions and narration.
- Do you have a lot of short sentences, both within your dialogue and within your description and narration?
- Do you use a lot of italics? We mean a lot of italics. And you don’t use many exclamation points, do you?!!
- Are there any metaphors or flowery phrases you’re particularly proud of. Do they come at key times during your plot? If so, think about getting rid of them.
- How much time have you spent moving your characters around? Do you cut from location to location, or do you fill in all the space in between?
- How much detail have you included in describing our character’s action? Try cutting some of the detail and see if the actions are still clear.
- Take a look at your flashbacks. How often are you interrupting the forward flow of your story? Do you have flashbacks at more than one level—that is, flashbacks from flashbacks? It you spend nearly as much time in the past as in the present, take a look at each flashback individually. If it were cut, would the present story be hard to follow?
- Keep in mind what you’re trying to do with each paragraph—what character point you’re trying to establish, what sort of mood you’re trying to create, what background you’re trying to suggest. In how many different ways are you accomplishing each of these?
- If more than one way, try reading the passage without the weakest approach and see if it isn’t more effective.
- Do you have more than one chapter that accomplishes the same thing?
- Is there a plot device or stylistic effect you are particularly pleased with? How often do you use it?
- Keep a lookout for unintentional word repeats. The more striking a word or phrase is, the more jarring it will be if you repeat it.
Heidi M. Thomas grew up with a love for books. She received a journalism
degree from the University of Montana and has had two award-winning novels
published, Cowgirl Dreams and Follow the Dream. Heidi is a freelance editor
and member of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild and The Blood Red Pencil editors’ blog.
My rate varies with each project. I normally charge from $1.50-$3+ per page.
I like to do a sample edit of 5-30 pages to see what kind of work needs to
be done and then I can give an estimate for the project. That also gives the
client an idea of what kind of editing I do and if he/she wants to go ahead
with the project.
My strong suit
I edit both fiction and non-fiction. Genres don’t matter, but I don’t do
erotica or manuscripts with a lot of profanity. (Some is OK.)
Type of proofreading and editing I do
I do a little of everything for most projects, depending on what the needs
are. I don’t do as much developmental consulting as the story is being
written, but will make suggestions if the plot needs more work or characters
more development, etc.
Samples for prospective clients?
Yes. Five pages free, 30 pages for $50.
I realize that not every editor/proofreader is perfect for every writer. This is why I am presenting the series, Editor Spotlight. If you know an editor or proofreader who would like to participate, ask them to contact me at karenselliott AT midco DOT net. The Editor Spotlight series will be presented throughout the next several months in between my regular blog posts and special theme weeks. – Karen S. Elliott