Repetition may be the key to learning, but it is annoying to a reader, and what is an editor if not first a reader? Repetitive words and phrases in writing become annoying. You don’t want to annoy the editor, especially if you’re sending your work to a traditional publishing house. A freelance editor, you have more leeway with. I shouldn’t tell you that, and freelancers everywhere are going to want to slap me for saying it, but it’s true. You hire your freelance editor; you can fire your freelance editor and find a new one if you want to (and have the money for it).
Repetitive words and phrases in writing
One way to get your manuscript tossed is to use the same phrasing repeatedly. You don’t need to grab a thesaurus and come up with unusual ways to say things, but you do need to keep your reader from saying, “Oh, boy, there the character goes ‘yammering’ again. The writer uses that word a thousand times in this book. Can’t the character just talk, or blab, or chat, or ramble? Does it have to be ‘yammer’ every time?”
You might think that new writers are the only ones who do this, but not so. People are creatures of habit, for one thing. For another, most people (yes, even writers) have a limited vocabulary. Most people only have about 3,000 words in their everyday word kit.
Known for saying
People are known for the phrases they use repeatedly. Think of the person someone can imitate just by saying something that person often says. Take a minute to do that. I bet you can come up with a few people who can be ID’d just by their words.
My son walked into the room and said, “Who am I? Boom!” and the others said, “Danny Messer!” That character is known for using that word. Achmed the Dead Terrorist is famous for “Silence! I keel you!” Your turn. Think of a couple of people who are known for certain words or phrases.
Common mistake in writing
Repetitive words and phrases in writing really are common. If you use the same words too much, what can you do about it? First, you have to find out if you’re making this common mistake.
A writer tends to use the same words and phrases over and over, and it usually doesn’t become apparent until the editing phase. Most people don’t see their own blind spots; it’s usually someone else who notices them. If you have an editor, ask that person to point out the words and phrases you use too much. If you don’t have an editor yet, or if you’re not asking or getting an answer to that question, then the find and replace feature in Microsoft Word might just be your best friend.
Start reading your manuscript, and when you think you’ve found a word or phrase you use too often, enter it into the “find” box, and see. You’ll have to be the judge of how often is too often, and if you want a character to be known for certain phraseology, you might want to leave those. Usually the things that are annoying aren’t what characters say, but what happens in the narration.
Do I need a thesaurus?
Do you need to change all the instances of the offending word or phrase? Not at all. Experiment to see what sounds better, but you might want to start with one out of every two instances on your worst offenders. It might be enough to make the remaining occurrences more bearable.
Some writers think they need to pull out the thesaurus to find words that are fancy or obscure, but most editors don’t like that. Use normal words—just not the same ones every time.
If you say “ran” every time you indicate quick ambulatory movement, you might try “jogged,” “loped,” or “trotted” a few times in the book. If everything is blue, you might make something in your book red, unless a blue universe is important to your story.
Highlighting the places where you wear out a phrase can help you see just how often you use it, and learning this about yourself will help you be a better writer.
Try using the “find” feature in your word processing program. Share your findings in the comments.