Give Word Salad the Toss
Salad. Always touted as the healthier option, however, in writing, the term ‘word salad’ refers to words or phrases that seem meaningful, but under scrutiny fail to refer to anything in particular. Two causes of word salad are repetition and redundant words. Perhaps you are struggling to reach your word count, and figure that fleshing out a description with numerous adjectives will serve a dual purpose of improving the meaning of your words and getting you over the 70K line. Or you might just be struggling to explain something, due to writers’ block or lack of knowledge about the topic. You throw down a string of sentences and hope for the best. Unfortunately, your editor will throw their hands up and shout:
And proceed to add a comment such as ‘Suggest reword for clarity’. That’s polite ‘editor speak’ for ‘I have no idea what you’re trying to say’.
So, let’s take a look at repetition and redundancy, and explore some ways to minimise their usage. After all, sometimes a simple steak and potatoes will provide more pleasure than a quinoa salad with roasted grapes and feta. The topic of cooked fruit in savoury dishes will be addressed in a separate blog, entitled ‘Culinary Crimes Against Humanity’.
Repetition in writing is using the same words or phrases to make a meaning clearer or more memorable. Repetition, if used correctly, can emphasise, highlight, or draw attention to a setting, character, or detail. This can be useful in fiction writing; however, the overuse or misuse of this powerful tool can have a negative impact on your reader. An example I saw in a non-fiction manuscript recently was the word ‘beautiful’ being used to describe the author’s, family, events etc. It was all beautiful. When I brought this to the author’s attention, she hadn’t realised how often she used the word.
My beautiful friend, Annie in its purist form means that Annie is physically attractive, however, we have grown to use ‘beautiful’ to describe the qualities of a person both inside and out. Your real meaning is that Annie is kind, thoughtful, empathetic, or another positive attribute that you know to be true but have not adequately described for the reader.
Another example I encountered recently was the repetition of the same sentence within several paragraphs. The repetition didn’t add any benefit to the writing, but rather appeared to be a lack of proofreading by the author.
Repetition’s close friend is redundancy. Redundancy means that it is excessive or unnecessary. In writing, it is the use of two or more words that say the same thing, or an expression in which the modifier’s meaning is contained in the word it modifies, e.g. merge together, each and every, browse through. These are so common that it is easy to overlook them in your writing.
Here are some common examples of redundant language:
Actual fact – Actual and fact are both defined as something that has happened.
Postpone until later – To postpone already means to reschedule to a later time, so the ‘until later’ is unnecessary.
Past history – History already means someone’s past, so when saying, ‘The employer looked into the candidates past history’, there is no need to include the ‘past’.
Sometimes less is more, and in writing, being concise and elegant is far more enjoyable for your reader. How do you identify and rectify the use of repetition and redundancy?
Proofread: This cannot be emphasised enough. Read your work over and over again (that’s a positive use of repetition 😊). Ask yourself if every word or phrase in a sentence is necessary. Does it add meaning or is it just a filler?
Read Aloud: This forces you to stop and read each word on the page, rather than reading in your head which can cause you to subconsciously skip straight over words or phrases. If something doesn’t make sense stop and look at it.
Short and Long Sentences: Mix up your sentences. Your reader doesn’t want to have to read through chunks of long-winded text. Interspersing long sentences with short ones adds interest and heightens the pace and flow.
I hope I have helped to provide some clarity around how to avoid word salad. Remember that not all repetition is bad, but redundancy is unnecessary. Don’t be afraid to cull. You can remove words and phrases and still retain the meaning of your writing. It might take practice to be able to spot them, but it will be worth it.
Lead Editor - Ocean Reeve Publishing