Watching out for Repetition

Although I’ve covered this before, this subject it’s worth a second look because it’s one of the most common things a writer does, albeit without even thinking.
How often during a read through of your manuscript do you think about words within the narrative that crop up time and again?  Probably not that often, and that’s because writers tend not to think too far in advance when in the throes of writing during such creative processes.

If you read through any story you’ve written, however, you’ll find inadvertent repetition of certain words. The repeated word really can be anything – someone’s name, a descriptive word, a noun, an adjective, a place name etc.  Sometimes it takes more than one read through to spot them – they blend in quite well with the rest of the narrative, which is why they are sometimes hard to spot.

The following is a simple example:

John walked across the room and peered through a grimy window to the grey mist outside.
Lynn loitered behind him. ‘This is a bargain, we shouldn’t refuse it.’
But John wasn’t so sure.  ‘I don’t like it. It’s dilapidated.’
‘I think it’s perfect,’ she said. ‘Just needs TLC.’
John peered at her.  ‘You would say that. That’s why it’s so cheap.’
She rubbed her swollen tummy.  ‘But it will make a perfect family home, once it’s done up.’

The instance of ‘John’ occurs too many times.  Some of these can be replaced with ‘he said/he did’ etc.  Also, the word ‘peered’ occurs twice in this scene. Sometimes this kind of word repetition isn’t noticeable until the editing stage.

Repetition might occur most noticeably during certain scenes, such as action scenes, when the pacing is quicker and tighter, and certain action words are unintentionally repeated, for example:

He grabbed the body and dragged it outside, just as the sun was sinking.  But there was no one about; he was alone on the hilltop.  The farmhouse was empty.  He grabbed the gun and put it in the car.  Now all he needed to do was get the body down to the quarry where he could dump it. 

He grabbed the corpse under the arms and hoisted it…  

As you can see, descriptive words such as hit/smashed/ grabbed etc, are easily repeated, and are common words to duplicate. 

Of course, repetition can be any word, so this is something the writer has to look out for and become attuned to finding within the narrative when editing.  Weeding out repeated words may take several edits, but it’s worth the effort and close attention.

In a recent writing project of mine, a forest featured heavily in the story, and during the editing stages I discovered I had repeated the word ‘forest’ countless times, without realising, sometimes more than twice in the same paragraph.

I knew that it would also appear countless times throughout the novel, so I used the ‘Find and Replace’ facility in Word to find all instances of the word ‘forest’ to either cut them, edit or replace the word.  This made it much easier to find a recurring repetitive word easily and effectively.

If you have a word that you know will feature heavily and recur within the narrative, then employ the ‘Find and Replace’ tool.

Here’s another example of repetition:

The car slowed as it approached the building, but there were no lights on, and the street seemed darker than usual, but as the car drifted past, a light flickered in the corner window.

He slowed the car and brought it to a stop further down the street, where there was no light.  He got out of the car, looked up at the apartment…

From this example, both ‘car’ and ‘light’ are repeated. Whilst ‘car’ stands out more because it’s repeated more often, the word ‘light’ almost slips by unnoticed.  You might think that a appearing just twice doesn’t warrant such a concentrated effort – but a writer should be thinking about every word he or she writes, because the quality of narrative is paramount. All it takes is a little imagination.

Re-written, the above example is much better:

The car slowed as it approached the building, but there were no lights on, and the street seemed darker than usual, but as the vehicle drifted past, a light flickered in the corner window.

He slowed the motor and brought it to a stop further down the street, where the darkness veiled him.  He got out and looked up at the apartment…

There will be times when some words just cannot be cut or changed, so it’s a matter of exercising common sense.  The good thing about writing is always the editing stage where errors and ‘rough’ bits are cut, snipped and trimmed and the narrative made presentable. This is why we edit.

As writers, when we’re ‘in the zone’ or so focused on getting the story written, we’re not concerned with the editing part, we just want to get the bare bones of the story out, so repetition will always be present in the narrative, along with all the other mistakes and flaws. 

The editing process is designed to correct those errors, so writers need not worry too much about these mistakes in the early stages.  Besides, we all do it.  Seasoned writers still do it. 

It’s all part of the writing process.

Next week: Keeping your MC at the forefront of your story


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