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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
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’?