Thursday, August 7, 2008

Repeat Words: The Spawn of Satan.

Personally, I can't stand them. But even so, from time to time I find myself slipping into the darkness that awaits when I write when I'm exceedingly tired or somewhat less focused. During these moments of weakness they sneak into my writing like thieves, the bouncer is asleep at his post, the uninvited guests are helping themselves to the champagne. Who are these miscreants? These manglers of hospitality? Repeat words, the most unholy of unholies, the most evil of evils. Well, at least in my mind.

The cure? One might think it would require the use of a dictionary or thesaurus, always kept at the ready, perhaps even behind a glass pane with a little hammer that says, "Use me in case of Emergency" in bold red lettering. For me the struggle lies primarily in unnecessary adverbs. At first glance I don't always catch them all. My brain, like most, is lazy in nature. It's perfectly happy if someone smiles dryly two or three times in a conversation. I find it better to get my writing off the screen, double spaced, and then I go over it with a pen and circle mistakes and write notes between the lines where I intend to make changes.

It may seem a little off, sometimes repeat words have their usage; to stress a point, perhaps? I suppose it just bothers me seeing the same word used over and over again in a short period of time when I'm reading a book. I get the unnatural desire to pull out a pen and circle the words and then draw lines connecting all the circles together, somehow gathering up the clones and taking them back to the factory where they were created in some rogue scientific experiment.

It just seems to me, and believe me when I say I'm no authority, that over usage of a word equates to tired writing. If you can remove excess usage without losing meaning then, to me, it's the reasonable thing to do.

I bring this up mostly because I'm currently reading a best seller that is just so distracting in word usage that I wonder who could possibly have edited the thing. The writing is mostly good, the story has gotten much better once I broke past the first 75 pages or so, but the way it comes together is bothersome at best. I'm not usually one to get caught up on the minor details but I've already run into two instances where the sentences appear to have been half written and then changed partially without being caught by proofreading. An example (not directly out of the text) *Then he then they walked out of the building* (indicating one group of people). This, combined with the repeat words, is very distracting for me. I think it might be partly because I'm thinking to myself the whole time that I must be more careful in my own writing. While it sold enough books to become a best seller, someone out there just like me cringes when they read over the same page I did and they think to themselves, "What was the point of all that?"

Writing Exercise:


Poetikat said...

I am with you 100% on this topic, Brady. I can't tell you the number of times I cringe at overuse (and catch myself too). What really frustrates me though, is the use of "novel" phrases that have no real basis in correct grammar. These phrases creep in to the vernacular through use by ill-educated celebrities and such and over time become acceptable. A couple of examples I can think of are: the use of the word "impact" as a verb. Impact should only be seen as a noun, as in "The car felt a huge impact when the semi ran into it." We can also say "His molars are impacted", but it should never have become common to use it like this: "The new budget impacts us all severely." This makes my blood boil!
A few other things that drive me mad: "irregardless" This is just stupid. The prefix "ir" negates the word and makes it redundant.
There are others, but I can't think of them just yet. Let me know if you can.

Jim Murdoch said...

This is a real issue with me. When I'm working on a book I'll do global searches to make sure I'm not using some of my pet words (e.g. 'quite' and 'nice') too much and unusual words should only get used once in a book unless completely unavoidable. (I mean what can you use in place of 'thesaurus'?)

This is where computers are fantastic. I'll go through and do a global replace highlighting every use of a certain word or phrase and then I'll work my way through the book and smooth out as many as I can so that, for example, I have an even spread of 'only', 'just' and 'simply'. Editing like this is terribly important before you even look at grammar, punctuation and spelling.

Eric S. said...

I've been fighting this problem in my own writing. I have been trying to force myself to use the darn thesaurus more, what the heck, it's just a click away. If its so dam easy to use, why can't I remember to do so?

Dave King said...

I go some way with you. I agree that the unintentional repetition of words is anathema of the first degree, but having said that I have been experimenting with repeating words - and phrases - for effect. I don't say it's successful, but I think I'll persevere for a bit. I rather suspect it's like all rules and rules of thumb...

Janine said...

Repeated words can be hard to identify in your own writing :-( Critique partners help, but I also use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard from

This handy tool highlights words and phrases that are repeated too close together. It also identifies those tricky overused words like 'nice' and 'very'.

I find it quick and easy-to-use. I wouldn't be published without it :-)

Does anyone else have any "secret tools" that they use?