Word Choice – Repetition

No matter what your creative style, sooner or later, you’ll have to do some self-editing. Probably, a lot of it.

Many factors must be considered when re-reading and editing your work. Probably the most important is word choice. And one aspect of that is repetition.

I don’t know the official rule on this, if there even is one. But a writer merely needs to combine common sense with good instinct.

Some things are obvious. For instance, Grandfather English gave us pronouns for a reason. But that’s just basic stuff. Sometimes, though, repetitions sneak in without our noticing it. Occasionally we’ll latch onto the perfect word and then use it to death. Sometimes the same item keeps coming up and you just about have to keep repeating it. How do you avoid the dreaded “repetitive word” complaint?

One thing, which you should be doing this anyway, is to choose nouns and verbs that are strong enough that they don’t need descriptive modifiers. Example: The big dog ate until the bowl was empty, but the small dog ate faster would be better written as The mastiff polished off his meal, but the terrier wolfed his down in seconds. Not only does the second version read smoother and draw clearer picture for the reader, but the only words that appear more than once are the and his.

Not sure if you’re repeating yourself? Fresh eyes can help detect the problem. If you have time, take what you’ve written and put it away for a day or two – even an hour or two will help – then re-read it. Often, the repetitions will jump out at you right away. If that’s not possible, reading it aloud will sometimes help.

What if you uncover repetition this way, but don’t know what word to use instead? If you find yourself stuck, a thesaurus is a useful tool. But beware, some of the synonyms suggested have different shades of meaning. Make sure the word you choose carries the meaning you want to convey.

Most of us tend to overuse the same wimpy words. When you’ve finished a story or a chapter, search your document for those on the list below. Whenever practical, either replace them with a stronger word, or eliminate them altogether. You might be surprised how often they’re not necessary:

actually, finally, good, just, kind of (yes, I know, this is a phrase, not a word – but whatever you do, don’t spell it kinda!), literally (be especially careful of this one: it’s not only overused, but often misused), look, lots, many, nice, pretty, quite, rather, real, really, simply, so, some, somehow, suddenly, such, that, very, up

When you’ve finished your search, you might get a kick out of playing with Wordle. This toy creates word clouds from text, with the most-used words showing up most prominently. Do it for fun, or to open your eyes to your own word usage habits.

Here’s the Wordle created from this article:

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