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Wednesday, April 27

You Can Say That Again: Repeating Yourself

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When you consider your typical novel runs around 80,000 words, it’s no wonder words get repeated. Some of those words readers don’t even notice (like said) and others stand out if we use them twice (like antidisestablishmentarianism). While it’s impossible to go back and check every instance of every word to see how often and where you used it, a little awareness of what you’re saying can not only tighten your novel, but make it read more smoothly.

Repeated Information
Where we reveal information matters in a story. Trouble is, we don’t always know where the best spot to reveal that information is, so it’s common to throw it in early on when we feel we need it, then add it later when we really do, then decide again it should go somewhere else later on. So the reader keeps having a sense of déjà vu. This doesn’t matter in a first draft since you’re still working things out, so if it feels like the place to put it, put it there -- even if you’ve already said it. But once that draft is done, pay attention to when information is revealed and make sure you take out the repetitions. You might even make a list of key info that needs to be in the story and then check to see where else you’ve mentioned it.

Repeated Phrases
There are some phrases we love to use. I’m partial to “eyes widened” “fell into step beside her” and I always have to check how many times I’ve used those in a draft. Some phrases are very book specific, like a fantasy that uses made-up swears, or a local saying that adds flavor. A little goes a long way here, and using them too often starts to stand out over the story itself. Then there are the stock descriptions we fall back on, like a similar way of always describing a smell or a sound. If something sounds a little familiar, you might see how often you use that line or something close to it. If you see it shows up a lot, try rewriting a few to avoid that stale prose feel.

Repeated Common Words

Smiled, looked, frowned, shrugged, sighed, scowled, etc. These solid, always good verbs show emotions, and boy do we use them a lot. We’re also fond of the movement words. Walked, ran, turned, stood, sat, stopped, etc. While these are all good words, you might check to make sure you haven’t used several of them close together. It can also be worth the time to find where you do use them and see if you can do better. This can be very time consuming, but you find a lot of opportunities for better descriptions that make it worth the extra effort.

Repeated Uncommon Words
These are the general words that get repeated and jump out at you. Often they’re within a few sentences of each other (which is why they stand out) and work just fine in each instance, but having them so close just hits the reader’s ear funny. The easiest way to find these is to read large chunks of your manuscript in one sitting, looking carefully at the text. You’re not reading it for the story, you’re checking the word flow. When you spot repetitions, edit one of them out.

Repeated Structures
When you have too many sentences with the same structure in a row it starts to sound repetitious. Always putting the dialog tags in the same places, starting with introductory clauses, talk-move-talk dialog. How you format the words is just as important as the words used.
Bob ran to the door, stopped, dropped and rolled. His gun fell, sliding toward the couch, vanishing underneath. He swore, cursing his butterfingers, crawling closer. The zombie charged, drooling all over the floor, growling like an animal. Bob grabbed the gun, swung it around, pulled the trigger. You are getting sleepy, very sleepy…
Hear the similar rhythm? It’s almost hypnotic, and not in a good way. Vary your sentences so the rhythm flows more naturally and breaks the sentences up.

Not only will eliminating repetitions tighten up your work, but you’ll save words as well – very valuable for those with too-long manuscripts you’re trying to cut down. It’ll also help keep every page fresh and interesting, because readers won’t feel like they’ve just read something.


  1. If I think I've read something twice (or seem to recall reading something before), there's a good chance it occurs again -- I immediately use Find/Replace. The exercise should also dig up clichés.

  2. Oooh yeah, I'm terrible for this. It doesn't bother me too much in books I read unless it's some emotional baggage that keeps on being repeated but never develops, but I know I need to keep an eye on it in my own writing.

  3. Good advice. Thank you. I'm bookmarking this post as one to return to when I'm further along. As one at work on my first novel, I especially like your words about the first draft - that it doesn't matter there. It's easy to get hung up on making it "just right" when I really need to just write.

  4. Oliver: Definitely. The nagging feeling is almost never wrong ;)

    Paul: I'm so with you there on that baggage.

    Barbara: Most welcome! Ya know, Just Write would make a great name for a blog. I wonder if there's one out there?

  5. I can't live without the search/find tool! I've started "banking" words to replace the ones I know I love. I refuse to use a banked word until the final revision. That way, I don't inadvertently create one problem by trying to solve another.

    I'm also trying to come up with a list of different expressions. Talk about difficult! If you know of one already in existence, I'd love to have it!

  6. This are great things to look for and I'm sooo guilty of repeated phrases (...and before.. is my favorite one!) I agree with the others that the find/replace tool is invaluable!

  7. Elizabeth: Banking words! What an ingenious idea. Like you own personal most-used words thesaurus. An expressions list would be awesome. I don't know of any but what a resource that would be.

    M. McGriff: I think "and before" is high on my list, too. Such a great phrase to remind readers of the stakes. How can you not use it? lol

  8. I find reading your work out loud is a great tool for finding repetition.

  9. Great stuff, Janice! Especially helpful now that I'm revising/editing my novel. I think what helps me catch those overused words the most is reading the manuscript aloud. Wow...I've even used the word in the SAME sentence and not caught it before (like, the word "even").

    Thanks for the super post!

  10. I'm going through this right now. I'm doing word searches for overused words and wow, I've overused a lot of words!

  11. Oh I've noticed this in mine. Smiled venomously is something I have villains do a lot... Thanks for the great advice :)

  12. Great tips Janice. Line edits are the key to finding where you botched the wording. Usually, when you start line edits you think 'how did I miss that?' I really haven't found a better way to find them aside from a critique partner. Great post.

  13. Stuart: Great tip. I catch awkward rhythm that way.

    Carol: Done that myself ;) Or the same word three or four times in a paragraph. The horror! LOL

    Julie: It's so easy to. Sometimes I wonder if I should do a check after each chapter, just so I don't have it all at once later.

    Mary: You could try other snake metaphors. Or anything with venom. Or things with evil grins.

    PW: Yep, those extra pairs of eye really help. I'd be lost without my crits groups. Even if I do spend a lot of time smacking myself in the forehead saying "D'oh!", hehe