Oops, I Did It Again!
6 Ways to Avoid Repetition in Your Writing
By Sabine Berlin
If you’re brave enough to sit through The Shining (of course you are—what are a couple of ghosts and a madman to anyone who dares to write a book?), then surely you remember the classic scene where Shelley Duvall discovers that the Great American Novel her husband has spent all winter writing consists of ten words—typed over and over and over.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
Your own novel is certain to be more original, but anytime you string together thousands of words, you’re bound to duplicate a few. The problem comes not when you use a word more than once, but when your reader begins to notice the words and not the story.
Unique words are fairly easy to avoid. Once you’ve used diaphanous or solipsistic, it’s not hard to remember that you’ve already enlightened your fans to your brilliant vocabulary. It’s more likely the common words that are the problem.
Each manuscript is different and each author’s voice steers toward his or her own repetitive prose. (I happen to be partial to “in fact.”) So how do you avoid repetition in your writing?
1. Read or listen to your book out loud.
Our eyes tend to skip over our own words, especially when we’ve read them a million times. Reading your book out loud gives you a new perspective. It’s easier to hear that you’ve used okay twenty times in a chapter than it is to see it. Take time to hear your words—then cut out anything you hear once too often.
2. Avoid overused words.
Five of the most frequently overused words I see when editing manuscripts are: so, still, though, very, and well. If you find yourself using these words more than once per page, do a search for them and ask: Do I really need this word here, or is it just taking space? If the answer is space—erase.
3. Use a thesaurus.
This handy tool can tend to backfire on a lot of people, so use it wisely. Maybe you’re trying to find a different word for cold. You type it in your online thesaurus and up pops a long list—everything from arctic to wintry. That’s great! You have several words to choose from. If you have to use cold more than once throughout your book, you now have options to rotate with. Be careful with this. Sometimes simple is the best, and a reader will be thrown out of the story just as much if you use thirty words for cold in the same chapter as if you use one—no matter how different they are. Use a word that fits the voice of the character/narrator, not one that puts up a red flag that you used a thesaurus.
4. Rotate your characters’ names for pronouns.
Chris went to the store. Chris bought a chainsaw. Chris cut down a tree and then Chris took it home. “What a lovely tree,” Chris’s mother said. “Thanks,” Chris replied.
Here is another area where reading out loud can help you find a good balance. You want to make sure the reader knows who is being spoken about, or who is speaking, but he or she can act as silent words, easy to skim over without pulling you from the story.
5. Repetition isn’t only about words. Think sentence variation.
Look at the example above. Poor Chris! He has a pretty boring story. There is no variation in his sentences’ lengths, rhythms, and syntax, so his tale becomes a laundry list of ideas. This happened, then this happened, then this. Try varying sentence length. Make sure you don’t start every sentence the same way. If you think something sounds repetitive, try one or two other ways to write it, and then go with the one that won’t turn your story into cleaning instructions. Example: Chris went to the store. The chainsaw caught his eye immediately, calling to him.
6. Sometimes it’s okay to use the same word.
Remember our silent pronouns? Well, there is one word that is mostly invisible all together. Said doesn’t draw the reader away from the story. It’s just there, not making anyone think too hard. There may be one or two places in your entire novel where someone whispered or hissed, but for the most part, said is the best way to tag dialogue. That being said, even this word, when overused (i.e., appearing dozens of time on one page), can be noticeable. If your character has a strong enough voice, you shouldn’t have to tag his dialogue on a regular basis. Dean Koontz is great at this. Pick up one of his books (Odd Thomas really showcases this technique) and you will see pages of dialogue with no tags whatsoever, and yet there is never any confusion about who is talking. Give your character a personality and you will avoid having to repeatedly identify who is talking.
Do this now:
- Get a good thesaurus and use it.
- Find a friend to whom you can read your story out loud so both of you can make lists of overused words. You may find your lists to be very different. Tackle deleting/alternating the words on both lists.
- Find authors you admire and read their work, watching how they avoid repetition, not only in words but sentence structure as well.
- If you have a character who overuses a specific word in dialogue, check to make sure you are not overusing that word elsewhere.
- For more editing help, download our proofreading checklist—a secret weapon our editors use in-house.
Writing a novel is no small feat. You have to plot, punctuate, and polish—over and over and over. So give your eyes a break from reading the same words (over and over and over) by making things fresh and exciting each time you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
Remember: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy … and repetition does the same to your book.
Let’s hear from you. What is the one word or phrase you find yourself overusing? Help a fellow writer by sharing below what your story can live without.