Monday, October 13, 2008

Repeat After Me: Ridding Your Writing of Repetition

It sneaks up on you. Even if you don't notice, others will. John McCain gave us a perfect (verbal) example in the October 9 presidential debate: "my friends." Is there a comic - or blogger - who has not spoofed McCain's repetition?

So maybe McCain is an extreme example, but it is easy to overuse a word or a description without realizing it. In a writing class, my instructor pointed out that I had written the phrase "you're so silly" in dialogue four times over six pages. How did I miss that?

Another example from my own work was that I repeated the word refrigerator in a scene where this kitchen appliance was being repossessed. So then I tried substituting with the descriptive phrase "avocado-colored rectangular box." That didn't work at all! My scene finally improved when I restructured my sentences so that I wasn't so dependant on one word.

Repetitive word use can kill good work in any type of writing - from novels to memoir to press releases. One of the most over used words ever in press releases is "excited." How many times have you read "XYZ Company is excited to announce..."?

What you can do to avoid this:
  • Have friends read your writing. This may seem like a no-brainer but it works. People who know you well may be able to catch your favorite oft-repeated phrases (like "awesome" or "that's funny") if they spill into your writing.
  • Have people you don't know well read your work. Some of the best writing buddies I have are not "friends." We love working together but it helps that we don't share the intimate details of our daily lives. It makes for good perspective-giving.
  • Read your work out loud. It's amazing what you can catch with your own ears. I recently met a writer who had nearly lost his voice because he'd spent the last two full days reading his manuscript aloud.
  • Trust your editor. If you work with or hire an editor, trust that he or she is there to help your writing be its best -- and has the skill to help you avoid "my friends."


Jesaka Long is a writer and editor for a coffee company by day and dedicates her non-cubicle hours to freelancing and pursuing her publishing goals. For more, check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

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  1. Jesaka,
    It's so much easier to recognize when someone else is repeating pet phrases than it is to recognize when we do it ourselves!

  2. Good advice Jesaka.

    Once or twice, I've read my work outloud, recorded it, then listened back.

  3. Here's another trick I use to ferret out these duplicates...the search function!

    If I get a sense of repetition, I enter the word or phrase into the example box and hit FIND. Usually I go all the way through just to get an idea of how many there are, then go through again and change some of them.

  4. Good premiere post, Jesaka. Look forward to reading more of your tips.

    Must go tweet, tweet, tweet now. ;)


  5. I do searches for certain words that I know I repeat.
    Then I replace them with something fresher.

  6. Great tips, Jesaka. I love reading my work out loud. I'm always surprised by the crazy things I catch that way.

  7. Thanks for all the extra tips - these are some great ideas. I love using the Word search function and recording yourself reading your writing. I'm not the biggest fan of my voice, but that's my issue. :)

  8. I like to print out my manuscript after it's done because it's easier to spot when I repeat phrases or words.

    Critiques like at my Chicago-North RWA meetings also help enormously.

    Morgan Mandel

  9. Catching repeated words is the most difficult aspect of self-editing. They can really sneak under the radar. This post has given me the idea to start making a list of words I tend to repeat and then use that to search through anything I write.


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