If you’ve ever edited a manuscript, you’ll know that it takes many drafts and lots of re-writing to shape said manuscript into a readable book. Amongst those drafts should be a pass that includes finding a word that is repeated so much that you could turn it into a drinking game.
I call these instances The Repeats; a list of words that I know my writing-self likes to cram into sentences, but my editor-self knows shouldn’t be there.
My personal Repeats list includes…
These are the words that flow during a first draft and then survive the rest of the drafts because they’re so ingrained in my writing voice that I don’t even notice them.
When looking at these words amongst others, it’s easy to think that they’ve been used sparingly, but with a Repeats draft added during the revision process, it’s plain to see that isn’t the case at all.
Taking Care of The Repeats
When my first draft is complete and I start the editing/re-writing process of (seemingly) endless drafts, I accumulate my Repeats list, noting down words I’ve used a lot, phrases I tend to repeat (most of the characters in the first few drafts like to “draw in a breath”). I then use my very last draft to take care of them. It’s a satisfying way to end the editing process because by the time you get to that stage you don’t want to read through every single sentence from start to finish yet again, and you’re focusing on fixing small, manageable sections of your book. You do this via…
Catching The Repeats is as simple as using the find tool (sometimes listed as Find and Replace, depending on your program). I use Scrivener and simply add the word into the “Find” field so that every instance is then highlighted yellow in my MS. I then check each chapter, go to the highlighted word, read the sentence it’s in and…
Once you’ve found the repetitive word, replace it with another word that suits, or re-write the sentence to eliminate it. It’s that easy (and hard).
Sometimes you’ll find that not only have you used a word repeatedly throughout the whole MS, but multiple times in a chapter or scene, and even in the same sentence! I don’t like to use a repeated word more than once in a scene or chapter if I can help it, but you can decide on your limit per scene, chapter, or book.
Top Tip: This goes double for a word that readers don’t automatically glaze over. If it’s an unusual word like indubitably, it’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Coming across such a word once usually gains attention, seeing it then five or six times throughout the rest of the book just highlights it, causing the word to lose its impact. A great word used once brings home the point. The same great word repeated every other chapter doesn’t.
Whilst you might be wondering how you replace really common words, The Repeats are not words such as “The”, “Said”, “He”, “She”, or “That”, they are words that are used repeatedly in the same way. If you look at my above list, you’ll see Realize/Realized. They are listed because of the following sentences that were once in the same chapter of an early draft:
- When he realized he was too far back to come to a conclusion, he slid out of the bed.
- He realized that the T-shirt was also white.
- They were in a waiting room, he realized.
- It took him a few seconds to realize she was referring to his earlier question.
Gets repetitive, doesn’t it? Changing all but one of these Repeats in subsequent drafts made for a better read.
Top Tip: Make your replacements natural. Don’t just turn to the thesaurus and pick out the fanciest word because it still says what you want but reads nothing like the word you’re replacing. It’s like on the TV show Friends when Joey writes a letter of recommendation to an adoption agency on behalf of Monica and Chandler and uses a thesaurus to turn “They are warm, nice, people with big hearts” into “They are humid prepossessing Homo Sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.” Don’t be a Joey.
After writing four books, I know which words I repeat constantly, so I’m more aware when writing something new and can try my best to not create too many Repeats during the initial drafts. In the long run, this cuts down on redundant editing, and as an added bonus makes for stronger writing. If you team this new restraint with a final Repeats edit, it’ll help make your writing as effortless as possible—turning it into a great read.
One Final Top Tip: Sometimes it’s not just repetitive words but rather an idea or notion that you’re trying to get across. When you’re writing the first few drafts, especially if you’re a pantser, you’ll repeat those ideas. During subsequent drafts, find those instances, decide which one says it best or is placed at the most relevant part of the story, and get rid of the rest.
— K.M. Allan