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.
Fantastic advice! I especially love the one about reading your story aloud. I feel a little silly every time I do it, but that really is where I catch the repetitions — both in individual words and in sentence structure.
I hate reading aloud, but each time I do I find something I can improve on. It really is the perfect tool. Happy writing (and reading aloud).
Agreed! I do that frequently while revising. Getting to hear the cadence of the sentences out loud is SO helpful!
Glad to know I am not alone. My husband laughs because every time I tell him to listen to what I just wrote I will spend half the time I am reading it to him making notes of what I can fix! Thanks for sharing!
Microsoftword has someone to do it for you. Sometimes the voice is a bit one tone, if you know what I mean, but I have been surprised at how many mistakes, ackward sentences, missing words and so on I have found using this.
Great article, Sabine!
Reading aloud is definitely important! I find myself reading slowly in my mind, as if I’m reading aloud, but it still isn’t the same as actually speaking the words and adding vocalization. One of the most educational experiences I had as an author was abridging my work for an audio version. I read the abridgment aloud to see what it would be like on tape, and it completely changed my sentence structure, use of pronouns, and transitions. A real eye opener!
I’ve tried to read it silently as well. It never works the same. I also like hearing how someone else reads my stuff out loud. It is amazing what the ear can pick up that the eye can’t.
New to creative writing, I’m working through the process of checking repeat words in my first novel of nearly 100,000 words. So far it has taken me nearly as long as it did to write the story itself! Some less common words are easily fixed by employing a thesourus, like ‘aftermath’… that I found two of on adjacent pages! But I have used the more common ‘after’ 215 times… which is nearly once a page… and which daunts me at the prospect of addressing. I’ve reduced the separate word ‘afternoon’ down to 14 from 22 occurrences… and that’s only words words beginning with the letter ‘a’. Only another 119 words to go through from my list of 231. I am convinced no-one else does this and I suspect if I were to find an equivalently sized text by some famous author or other, it would have similar statistics. Maybe having spend most of my working life in engineering I have an eye for such detail. Maybe also, readers are in general like goldfish with short attention spans for the actual words. By the time they have read a page, (vis-à-vis swam round the bowl) the words have gone; leaving only the impression they leave behind. As a tip though, try clicking on your word processor’s Search and Replace function to look up words such as think/thinking, however, remember, enough, find/finding. You will see them jump out at you like the bright green dots on a radar screen. I managed to leave ‘one anther’ and ‘each other’ in the same sentence… and that’s after two friends having read it and reading it out to myself at least ten times. Why is it when you turn Search and Replace off, they become invisible? Perhaps a better tip is not to use Search and Replace at all… Perhaps only engineers will notice the duplications. As for audio feedback, text to speech is a useful tool and is built into MS Word.
cool article, helped lots 🙂