Repetition – a two-ended hammer

We all have words and phrases we unintentionally use too often. They’re very conspicuous to readers – and virtually invisible to us.

One of the best proofing tricks – reading your work aloud – won’t necessarily help you spot repetition. A passage that irks on the page may seem satisfyingly emotive when read out loud.

(What’s more, you might even cheat, imagining different stress as you vocalise your prose, thus fooling yourself there is no need to change anything… Yes, I know the tricks.)

So how do you tackle it?

It helps to know where the danger areas are.

Redundant words

Look for the modifying words that don’t need to be there. Just, suddenly, actually, very, effectively, eagerly - these are frequently overused in an attempt to emphasise or add a different quality to a verb, but it would be better to find a more precise verb or description.

Overused verbs

Certain verbs are easily overused too. Feel, see, think, supposed, hoped, wanted, tried all flow from our fingers without hesitation, or while our mind is on the hundred other things we need to juggle in a scene. But they usually have much truer alternatives.

Try Wordle

A good way to spot your own verbal tics is Wordle. You can dump an entire novel into it (and honestly it will cope) and you’ll get a pretty – and alarming snapshot of your lazy words. And if you’ve got a few pet interesting verbs that appear too often with no justification, it will make you aware of those too. (Hold onto that thought of repetition being justified; we’re coming back to it later.)

Using a thesaurus does not make you a dinosaur

We hear a lot of disapproving noises about Roget’s tome. What folks are objecting to is:

1 very obscure words

2 synonyms swapped in indiscriminately with no feel for connotation or rhythm.

To which I answer:

1 the thesaurus has ordinary words too – all of them

2 if you’re staring down an unbearable repetition and your mind is blank, where else are you going to find a better option?

I use the thesaurus all the time when editing, to remind me that more precise, more exciting options exist than the first word I thought of. I also use poetry, to encourage me to reach beyond the literal. (That might suit your genre, it might not. But Roget suits everyone’s.)

Repetition - the good side

Repetition gets a bad rap because it’s usually a sign of unpolished writing. But it can be a powerful tool. Because it’s so noticeable ­- which of course is why it irritates – it can emphasise and echo.

It’s good if you have characters with distinctive phrases, or you want to intentionally echo a scene or a feeling. It’s especially good to underline themes and images, creating the sense of an ordering web that’s holding the book together. A repetition with well judged variation can send readers loopy with satisfaction – look at Richard Adams’s Watership Down, which opens with the line ‘The primroses were over’ and closes ‘The primroses had just begun.’

Use with a light touch

Readers are wired to be detectives. All readers are trying to fathom which characters they should look at, what the story is really about, what the moral and physical rules are. They look for and latch onto patterns, even if they’re not aware they are doing so. Repetition is one of those, and we need to be exquisitely tuned to it, use it deliberately and with care.

Thanks for the pics CarbonNYC and sim, youn jim

What’s your feeling about repetition? Do you have any tips for spotting it? And any lovely examples of where it works well?

And have you any idea how few viable synonyms there are for ‘repetition’?

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  1. #1 by Barbara on June 10, 2012 - 4:09 pm

    Interesting – I wasn’t aware of Wordle so will give that a go! I always tell my students to read their work aloud and it does throw up some repetition – but admittedly, it’s not foolproof!

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 10, 2012 - 4:37 pm

      Thanks, Barbara! Reading aloud is brilliant, but I think repetition is the one type of mistake where it’s possible to cheat.

  2. #3 by Hugh on June 10, 2012 - 5:17 pm

    Textanz is another word frequency analyser (http://www.textanz.com/). Not as much fun as Wordle, I suspect, and not (yet) for the Mac, but Textanz’s USP is that it picks up phrase repetitions as well.

  3. #5 by Hugh on June 10, 2012 - 5:20 pm

    By the way, that’s a disturbingly magnetic pic!

  4. #7 by Hugh on June 10, 2012 - 5:38 pm

    Cows. They remind me of someone I used to know.

  5. #10 by Heather Jenkins on June 10, 2012 - 8:01 pm

    I like to have someone read my work aloud while I listen. Hearing my words through someone else – everything from the tone to nuances to repetition – helps me understand my strengths and weaknesses. I LOVE Wordle and had not thought of using it for my own stuff. Excellent idea. Thank you!

    • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 11, 2012 - 12:11 pm

      That’s a nice solution, Heather – and a real test of how smoothly your text reads to an unfamiliar eye. Wordle’s a great toy!

  6. #12 by Deb Atwood on June 10, 2012 - 10:45 pm

    My sister and I were doing a road trip and listening to an Iris Johansen mystery. In every other paragraph “his lips thinned.” It got so Jen and I would turn to each other and mouth “his lips thinned.” In my writing I know I have a weakness for suddenly and looked and turned. I guess my characters feel compelled to do a lot of looking and turning.

    I checked out Textanz, which seems pretty easy to use.

    I love good repetition, though–particularly anaphora and symploce. For repetition of motifs, I don’t think you can beat Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or Maso’s The American Woman in the Chinese Hat.

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 11, 2012 - 12:15 pm

      Deb, that would drive me nuts too. I remember discovering to my chagrin that in an early novel of mine a lot of characters were narrowing their eyes.
      To my shame, I had to google those two devices you mentioned – and they are indeed very useful forms of repetition. I’d noticed them without realising they had distinct names…

  7. #14 by Inion N. Mathair on June 11, 2012 - 5:09 am

    I love this post and completely agree. There were certain phrases in our first book, that once we began the process of cleaning, we realized it was littered through out the book. Over kill. My writing partner & daughter who is a perfectionist, began to count the times I had used it, and told me that we needed to curb it. The phrase “So to speak” became an eye soar & a thorn in my flesh. By the time we wrote our second book, I would distance myself when I felt it surfacing which was easy once I had been made aware. Another time was our writing class of twenty-five. We were given an assignment and when we read them aloud, a lady realized she had written certain words, up against each other. The most common being: (had, had). Another member agreed saying she made the same mistake and had a theory that it could be traced & blamed on upbringing. lol. She completely blamed her southern upbringing stating it was a southerners nature to be passionate about what they’re describing. For me, I had my own dragons to slay, “so to speak”. lol

    • #15 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 11, 2012 - 12:18 pm

      Inion, I’m sure that a good half of learning to write is becoming extremely aware of what we do. In the same way I guess that dancers have to develop control of even the slightest moves, and know what their unconscious habits are. Nice examples.

  8. #16 by Susan Price (@priceclan) on June 11, 2012 - 10:04 am

    Such sound advice, Roz. It’s those ordinary words ‘just’ and ‘very’ which drive me mad. I swear they rewrite themselves after being deleted, every time my back is turned.

  9. #18 by Theresa Hupp on June 11, 2012 - 6:56 pm

    Timely advice, as I head into editing my novel-in-progress.
    I find reading out loud does help catch repetition, though it’s not a panacea. And my readers catch a lot of repetition I miss in my work. I love Wordle. Once you find your “problem” words that you repeat all the time, you can search in Word for them.

    • #19 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 13, 2012 - 7:30 am

      Thanks, Theresa! I think catching repetition is one of the valuable things an outside reader can do for us.

  10. #20 by Sally - aka Saleena on June 12, 2012 - 10:44 am

    Hand’t heard of Wordle before Roz – thanks for that. I agree completely there has to be a balance between using fresh words and repetition for effect – the latter being best preserved for the speech style of your characters.

    • #21 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 13, 2012 - 7:32 am

      Hi Sally! Repetition is like anything in writing – a technique to be used with awareness. And I’d say that it doesn’t just have to be kept for speech. If your prose style has a strong narrative voice, repetition can be used well there too.

      • #22 by Sally - aka Saleena on June 13, 2012 - 10:35 am

        Sorry Roz – I wasn’t implying that it should be exclusive, but it seems most effect in speech since individuals in real life repeat their words all the time. I agree with you that it can be effective in prose too.

  11. #23 by Daniel R. Marvello on June 15, 2012 - 12:20 am

    Repetition is another reason why beta readers and critique partners are so valuable. It’s easy to miss the repetition in your own writing, but it is usually like chalk squeaking on a blackboard to others.

    I frequently use the built-in Word thesaurus, but all too often it disappoints. I break out Roget’s when faced with a difficult word selection problem. Unfortunately, Roget’s can have a rabbit hole effect for me as I love exploring words.

  12. #24 by Monica T. Rodriguez on June 18, 2012 - 8:53 pm

    Never thought to use Wordle to analyze your novel. Terrific idea!

  13. #26 by David C. Cassidy on June 19, 2012 - 9:37 pm

    Great post, Roz! We can all use a reminder like this to write more effectively. Thanks for sharing! :)

  14. #27 by staticsan on July 2, 2012 - 2:30 am

    I just pasted my latest short-story (~2600 words) into Wordle. I was quite gratified to see the words with the biggest repetition… were my characters’ names. :-)

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