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6 ways to avoid repeating the same old words and phrases in your writing

It’s August, and time for another authors’ Round Robin. This month the topic has been set by author Rhobin Courtright.

helena fairfax, freelance editor, fiction editor, romance novel editor

Do you have any character habits or favourite words that always crop up in your writing?

The short and simple answer: yes! The difficulty is, spotting this repetition when it happens.

My husband always reads my first drafts. He suffers from OCD and sometimes feels compelled to read the same sentences more than once. You can imagine how frustrating this is for him at times, and so imagine that frustration tenfold if the author is already repeating themselves. Until my husband read my first drafts, I had no idea how much ‘gazing’ my characters did, or how often they lifted and dropped their heads.

helena fairfax, freelance editor, romance editor, editing romance novels
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In general I’ve managed to eradicate the head-lifting that made my characters appear as though they had some sort of problem, but I’m afraid the gazing does still tend to creep in unless I’m vigilant!

So this leads to my first tip for cutting out repetition in your writing:

Tip one: Ask someone else to read it

See my comments above. Another pair of eyes can be a real help in catching this type of repetition. Family and friends are fine up to a certain point, but an experienced, thoughtful editor is invaluable.

helena fairfax, freelance editor, romance editor, editing romance novels
Image by Thought Catalog from Pixabay

Tip two: Read your work aloud,

or get your word-processing software to read it, or else send  the document to your Kindle and have your Kindle read it aloud.

When we’re speaking we often tend to use the same phrases, too. Some people add a ‘yeah?’ to the end of every sentence. If I’m explaining something, I often add a ‘So’ in a dramatic way at the start of a sentence, even if I’m just explaining how to switch on the boiler.

If you’ve ever gone through the painful exercise of listening to yourself speaking, you’ll realise what I mean. Listening to your own draft spoken aloud can help highlight all sorts of awkwardnesses, including repetition.

Tip three: Use a Word Frequency Counter

I’ve found this word frequency counter on the WriteWords website really useful. (They also have a Phrase Frequency Counter, too.) But caution! These word counters are run by robots, and can lead you down a path of worrying overmuch about the use of certain words. Sometimes replacing something like ‘explained’ with another word can sound simply odd, and it would have been better – and less noticeable for the reader – to keep the repetition. But as a guide, they can be useful.

Tip four: Use your overuse of certain words to check for potential problems with the narrative

I ran the first chapter in my own WIP through the word counter above and found in the first chapter I’d used the word ‘remembered’ six times. And it’s not that my heroine is suffering from some sort of amnesia! So this has made me ask myself am I dropping in too much backstory in chapter one? After running the word count, I’m going to go back through and check.

helena fairfax, freelance editor, romance novel editor
Image by Alicja from Pixabay

If you find you’ve used lots of ‘realiseds’ or ‘noticeds’, this can often be a signifier that you’re telling the reader things, rather than showing them through scenes, action, dialogue, etc. (More on Showing vs Telling here.)  

Tip five: Check your dialogue (action) beats for repetition

Most novels contain plenty of ‘saids’, but that’s fine, as this is a word readers gloss over. ‘Said’ is there to signify who is speaking, and if you replace it with anything  else – ‘spluttered’, ‘barked’, ‘uttered’, etc., that could easily be a distraction.

It is often useful, though, to add a dialogue ‘beat’, which is the description of the action a character is making while talking, and can serve to show their emotion.

For example: ‘I told you not to repeat yourself.’ The headmaster scowled. ‘Have you learned nothing?’

‘Scowled’ is an example of a dialogue beat.

It’s with dialogue beats that I tend to repeat myself the most, with all sorts of sighing and frowning (and head-lifting). It’s easy to tell the reader that someone is angry, upset, excited, nervous, etc., but showing that emotion in a dialogue beat, in a fresh and original way, I find particularly difficult. I often wish there were some kind of thesaurus for dialogue beats, and I could type in, say, ‘furious’, and get a list of dialogue beats to choose from: ‘he bellowed’; ‘he hurled [something]’; ‘his eyes blazed’. Instead, I find myself repeating things like ‘her eyes lit up’ to signify enthusiasm, and then stalling over what I could use instead.

For more about dialogue beats, and an interesting way to come up with them, I found this article on Kathy Steinemann’s blog really useful.

Tip six: Read, read, read other people’s writing

Repetition can be a sign you’re relying on the same vocabulary or phrases. By reading other authors you open yourself up to a whole new way of telling a story. Sometimes I deliberately study how an author is using things like dialogue beats in order to break out of my own traps of repetition.

By reading widely we can expand our vocabularies and phrases and find fresh and interesting ways of telling a story.

*

This has been another thought-provoking topic. I’m interested to find out how the other authors have answered this month’s question, and what pitfalls they find in their own writing. If you’d like to find out, please click on the links below.

Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea

Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com

Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/

Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/

Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-2ow

Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/

Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/2021/08/characters-habits-or-favorite-words.html

Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobincourtright.com

18 thoughts on “6 ways to avoid repeating the same old words and phrases in your writing

    1. Hi Anne, this is another thing I seem to be able to pick up on when editing for others, and yet struggle to recognise in my own writing. It’s so useful to have someone reliable to read over your writing.
      I’ve enjoyed this month’s topic. Thanks very much for dropping in!

      Like

  1. Hey, Helena. Yes, it’s always hard to see things in our own writing. My favorite tip is having the computer read the ms to me. Good grief the stuff that pops out, especially repetition of words that I just don’t see when I’m reading, but by ear catches it. Or catches, hey, you’ve already made that point just a couple of paragraphs before. You know I use my long list of words that I laboriously go through and check for. It’s grown from 45 to 75. With each new book, I discover my newest “favorite” word or phrase. Thankfully, a number of those on the list, I no longer use, but I keep them on the list to double check myself. Great post. I’ve shared. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marsha, I really like the idea of making a list of ‘problematic’ words. My favourite words seem to evolve over time, too. My writing has changed a lot since my first novel. Now I still repeat things – just different things :)
      Thanks so much for dropping in, and for your comment, and thanks for sharing I appreciate it!

      Like

  2. Great checklist and a good reminder of what we should be doing. Tip 4 Use your overuse of certain words to check for potential problems with the narrative was one I hadn’t thought about. Thanks for the post, Helena.
    Bev

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Re: your last tip–I used to think that I should NEVER read any romances that were similar to my own. Then I started reviewing for a blog, and realized that the more I read other authors’ romances, the more I get inspired to write my own. The act of writing the reviews gets the words flowing. Unfortunately, the day-job, or my “bread-money” job is now interfering. But I’m raring to go, the next time I get a day or so off.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fiona, I sympathise entirely with your day job interfering – but it’s great that you’re full of ideas! Strangely, I had a dream last night that I was inspired by reading another romance novel and was scribbling down a brilliant idea. Unfortunately that idea was gone when I woke up :) But I totally agree that other people’s stories can sometimes spark off a whole different world. Very best wishes for your writing!

      Like

  4. Helena,

    I was hacked yesterday so please ignore any message you appeared to receive from me about Amazon and money. It’s a dangerous scam. Sorry about that.

    John Rosenman

    > WordPress.com

    Liked by 1 person

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