Writers are human, and sometimes we make mistakes. You’re probably aware of the most common mistakes in writing: comma splices, run-on sentences, mixing up homophones, and a variety of other broken grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules.
In my editing and coaching work, I’ve noticed another common mistake: redundancy. Sometimes, we use repetition effectively, but most of the time, by saying the same thing twice, we’re littering our writing with unnecessary language, or verbiage. If we remove the excess, we can improve our writing by making it more concise.
Understanding and Identifying Redundancies in Writing
Dictionary.com defines redundancy as a noun meaning “superfluous repetition or overlapping, especially of words.” Its cousin, the adjective redundant, means “characterized by verbosity or unnecessary repetition in expressing ideas” or “exceeding what is usual or natural.”
Sometimes we clutter our writing without realizing it. We do this to fulfill word counts, to give our prose rhythm and meter, or to be descriptive. Sometimes we do it because we’re using writing as a tool to discover our thoughts and ideas.
There’s nothing wrong with cluttered writing as long as we unclutter it before putting it in front of readers.
One of the easiest ways to identify redundant language is to ask whether we can remove it without losing meaning. Here is an example:
The lecture was boring and dull. It was putting Olivia to sleep.
The words “boring” and “dull” mean the same thing. We are told a third time that the lecture was a drag because it lulled Olivia to sleep. We can remove most of the first sentence without losing any details or changing its meaning:
The lecture was putting Olivia to sleep.
Redundancies can also be identified through repetition. However, repetition means using the same word or phrase more than once whereas redundancy means saying the same thing more than once. It’s a subtle but significant difference. Also, repetition and redundancy can occur together:
Charlie smiled as he approached the cheese platter. He chose brie and Gouda from the cheese platter and wished they were serving baguettes instead of crackers.
We see Charlie approaching the cheese platter. When he selects brie and Gouda, it’s implied that he selected them from the cheese platter (because we just saw him approaching it), so it’s unnecessary for the narrative to say that he chose them “from the cheese platter.” The narrative is redundant because it’s not necessary to mention the cheese platter twice:
Charlie smiled as he approached the hors d’ouvres table. He chose brie and Gouda from the cheese platter and wished they were serving baguettes instead of crackers.
Some redundancies are difficult to spot, especially in cases where the exact same word or phrase isn’t used:
Donna realized she was hungry. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast,” she said. “Want to grab a pizza?”
When Donna says she hasn’t eaten since breakfast and suggests grabbing a pizza, the reader will conclude that she’s hungry, so the narrative doesn’t need to tell the reader that Donna is hungry in the previous sentence. When information is revealed through dialogue, it doesn’t need to be stated in the narrative as well:
“I haven’t eaten since breakfast,” Donna said. “Want to grab a pizza?”
As you can see, it’s pretty clear that Donna is hungry without the narrative explicitly saying so.
In addition to broad redundancies, there are a host of redundant phrases that pop up in writing. For example, it’s redundant to say “let’s collaborate together” because collaboration is, by definition, done together. Here’s a list of 50 redundant phrases to avoid in writing. Read through the list and see if you can find a few phrases you didn’t realize were redundant.
Eliminating Redundancies to Improve Your Writing
Try this for practice: choose a recently finished piece and review it, looking for redundancies. Highlight them, then make another copy of the piece, editing the redundancies out. If you catch an average of one redundancy per page (or more), then plan on dedicating one proofreading pass to eliminate redundancies as one of your editing and proofreading steps. After a few passes, you’ll start to catch redundancies in the drafting phase, and eventually you’ll break the habit and improve your writing.
Are redundancies one of your bad writing habits? Have you ever caught a glaring redundancy in a piece of your writing? Do you think you might have missed a few redundancies?