I have to admit it. I’m a complete nerd, which is why I’m completely addicted to the Song of Ice & Fire series by George R.R. Martin (you know them as the books that form the basis of the Game of Thrones TV series). I love the intrigues, the world details and all the plot lines that swirl around in a big fantasy stew.
What I don’t like is that these books are incredibly wordy making each one of them at least 800 pages. To get through these books at the pace they deserve requires more free time than I have; plus, after a day at the computer I honestly don’t have the eye power to read that much tiny font.
So, I am incredibly grateful that the books are on audiobook. This allows me to “read” up to a couple hours a day without straining my exhausted eyes and has gotten me through four of the books so far (I plan to finish up Book 5 this weekend). Unfortunately it also points out something I feel all writers (even masters like Martin) need to address: REPETITIVENESS.
In the Song of Ice & Fire series, I’m about ready to throw my iPod through the wall every time I hear “much and more,” “little and less,” “many and more,” “of an age/height” (used instead of “the same age/height”) and “mummer’s farce” (used for every damn thing that seems false….every damn thing).
At first these twists of language seemed clever, but after a while the constant repetition of them becomes stale and annoying.
Don’t let your writing become stale and annoying. I’m sticking with the Martin books because my interest in the story is stronger than my irritation at some of the writing. However, if you’re putting out a first book or trying to build your reputation and fan base, these little irritations could have people putting down your book and never giving you another chance.
HOW IT HAPPENS…
Here’s how it starts – you think your turn of phrase is clever so you use it. Then you use it again a few pages or paragraphs later because you forgot you used it before. Then, you use it again because, damn, it’s just so clever you’ve fallen in love with it.
Fall out of love! Make your clever phrases a one-night stand…maybe a two- or three- night stand if you’re writing a novel or non-fiction book. Do not start a long-term relationship with your clever phrases.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT…
Once you’ve completed a draft and have ignored it for at least a week, read your draft as fast as possible. This quick reading will help you notice those repeating phrases more readily than if you read a chapter here, a chapter there and end up spending several weeks going over your draft.
When you notice a clever phrase you think you’ve used before, highlight it. Be especially mindful of setting or character descriptions, dialogue tags and character actions/behaviors.
Once you’ve done your read-through, write down the phrases you marked. Then, using the Find feature in your word processing program, enter that phrase and see how often it pops up. I won’t tell you there’s a special formula for how many times a phrase can be used per story, but if it’s a short story try to stick to just using it once.
In a novel, you can use your phrase a few times as long as the repetition doesn’t come too close together or too often. Seriously, I’ve heard “mummer’s farce” about three times in one hour of listening, “much and more” has hit at least five times in an hour. This is TOO much repetition and is putting my iPod’s life at risk.
In addition to book-wide repetitions, you should also avoid using the same word in the same sentence…and preferably only once in a single paragraph. I’m not talking about words like “the” or “and” here. Instead, think in terms of nouns and verbs.
For example, “His eyes met her eyes” could be better as “His eyes met her gaze” or “Their eyes met.” Another example with verbs “The leaves fell from the trees as he fell from the horse” could be “the leaves fluttered from the tree as he toppled from his horse.”
A good way to avoid repetition within short sections is to use the best, most descriptive verb possible (as in the fluttered/toppled sentence). Also, using more precise nouns will help reduce your repetitive bits throughout your story/essay/article/book. For example, use “tulips” instead of “flowers,” “oak” instead of “tree,” or “beagle” instead of “dog.”
Again, your word processing program can help you find the words you repeat over and over and over and will even give you a count of how many times a word is used throughout your manuscript.
So, go forth, scour your pages for words you use “much and more” and try to use them “little and less” so your work doesn’t seem like a “mummer’s farce.”
4 thoughts on “Stop Saying That! Avoiding Repetition in Your Writing.”
I am not a “writer”, just like to write what I’m thinking. However, I have noticed these same things in my own simple writing and have gone back to make it better. To think that I stumbled upon an actual writer’s tool by accident! Thanks for naming things as they are.
Glad you liked it and keep up the good work!
Great article; thanks. The first thing I look for when editing my work is repetition. In my opinion, writing has to have a certain rhythm and flow. Using the same word within a short span makes it awkward.
I can’t even write letters any longer without making certain I’m not repeating words too much!
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