When I’m line-editing my writing projects, I’m a HUGE nerd for sentence fluency. I don’t know why. Each sentence has a rhythm or cadence, and sometimes it just sounds wrong unless I phrase it just right. Word repetition plays a huge role in this and can be one of the easiest things to spot out when you sit down to edit.
Of course, there’s a good type of repetition, and a bad type. While the good type sounds poetic, the bad type sounds choppy and awkward.
Changing up your word choice doesn’t mean you have to resort to some highly eloquent speech or anything. In fact, you should NEVER raid the thesaurus just for the sake of mixing it up.
There’s no rule for word variation. There’s no “you can only use the same word once every 500 words” or something. It’s something you want to be aware of, but if your character is more likely to say “like” instead of “such as,” it’s not bad writing to have them say “like” 90% of the time. That allows your narrator to have their own voice.
As such, I’d be more concerned about a lack of word variation in a smaller excerpt of text (like a paragraph or a page) as opposed to larger chunks like chapters or the book as a whole.
It’s an art, because while you don’t want to lean into bad repetition, you also don’t want to make things so complicated that you’ve lost your reader. You don’t want to jump through hoops to avoid repeating yourself, or that will mess up your sentence cadence even more.
Take a word like “door,” where there really aren’t any synonyms for it. I mean, technically there are, like “portal” or “entry” or “ingress” or something, but I mean, if you’re just talking about the door to a bedroom, any of those words are highly inappropriate. A door can just be a door. It’s a matter of fancy footwork to keep things from dragging.
Here’s an example with heavy repetition of the word “door.”
With a deep draw of breath, I stepped towards the door. This time I’d do it. I’d knock and I wouldn’t leave until she opened the door. Each step was firm with confidence, and far too soon, I stood in front of her door. I set my shoulders and raised my hand to knock. The proximity to her door almost made me turn away, but I was already decided. I knocked.
After a pause, the door opened on silent hinges.
Despite it being a common word without many sensible replacements, you CAN avoid overusing it.
With a deep draw of breath, I stepped towards her room. This time I’d do it. I’d knock and I wouldn’t leave until she let me in. Each step was firm with confidence, and far too soon, I stood in front of her door. I set my shoulders and raised my hand to knock. The proximity to the painted wood that hid my sister from the world almost made me turn away, but I was already decided. I knocked.
After a pause, the door opened on silent hinges.
Doesn’t that sound better? Try reading the whole thing out loud if you need to. Seriously, reading something out loud can work wonders when it comes to flow. As soon as your tongue trips over something awkward, you’ve found your problem.
Once you’ve recognized a word repetition problem, here are some ways to fix it:
- Try rewording your sentence.
Even if you use the same word, if it’s used in a different spot in the sentence it’s not as annoying. If you start every sentence with “The door” then your lack of word variation is all the more glaringly obvious, since it’s also paired with a lack of sentence variation.
- Think of another way to say it.
Even if it’s not necessarily a synonym, this can help. In my example, I substituted “door” with “painted wood.” Not all painted wood is a door, but since the door was already mentioned, I can trust my reader to know what I’m talking about. Just don’t go too crazy.
- Read it out loud.
I know I’ve already said this. And I know just about every writing advice thing says this and no one actually does it, but seriously. You will catch so much. Awkward sentence cadence, missed words, inorganic dialogue.
Plus, if you’re alone and you don’t have to worry about listening in, you can get into it and give your characters all a different voice and call yourself a dork.
- Don’t raid the thesaurus.
Please don’t. Please, please. It does not work.
For fun, I’m going to replace every usage of “door” with the order they’re listed for Word’s thesaurus. Granted, the differences between these synonyms for “door” should be more obvious than other words, but any improper thesaurus raiding basically reads like this:
With a deep draw of breath, I stepped towards the entrance. This time I’d do it. I’d knock and I wouldn’t leave until she opened the gate. Each step was firm with confidence, and far too soon, I stood in front of her entry. I set my shoulders and raised my hand to knock. The proximity to her exit almost made me turn away, but I was already decided. I knocked.
After a pause, the access opened on silent hinges.
That’s for a common word like “door,” at least. Honestly, repeating a word like “door” isn’t a huge problem. It’s common, and we’re used to hearing it all the time. You can reword a bit so you’re not using it every sentence, but don’t worry about using it more than once on the same page.
Using Uncommon words?
When it comes to uncommon words and phrases, you need to be a bit more careful. Dropping in some words like “jubilant” or “morose,” while pretty, will also attract more attention.
Adding in some higher-level vocabulary is a great and powerful thing for your writing. It adds some flavoring and color, and you’re doing good for your readers too, by teaching them some cool new words. But those colorful new vocab words also stick out since we’re not used to hearing them. When you use an uncommon word multiple times on the same page or even in the same chapter, it feels jarring and unnatural.
So keep adding in some nice new words, but keep it to a sprinkling. You might not notice yourself repeating these words in drafts, so have a friend or writing buddy read it. They’re more likely to notice the repetition than you are.
By the way, did you subconsciously notice that I used the word “cadence” multiple times in this post? It’s one of those more uncommon words that will catch your attention, even if you’re not consciously thinking about it. (I snuck it in so you could see the example for yourself!). Then again, if you were skimming, you probably missed it.
Best ways to find word repetition?
If you’re not aware of which words you might be over using, here’s a handy dandy word counter thing for you! Simply paste in a chapter or however much, and it’ll tell you how many times you use certain words.
Please be smart when using this. Obviously you’re going to have a billion uses of “the” and “a” and stuff, so don’t go through trying to varying up your transitional and prepositional words. If you are using the same word (not including every “and” and “but”, like I said) maybe 10+ times in the same chapter, go through each instance and see if there’s a better way to say it, at least for a few of them.
Most of my current WIP takes place in a cemetery. Although there’s technically a difference between a cemetery and a graveyard, my narrator doesn’t care enough to make the distinction, so I have her swap out between the two terms. Since it’s part of my setting, these words will still turn up a lot and they’ll become “common” to my readers, but I think it’s a nice little way to keep things fresh.
And despite bullet point #4, you can use the thesaurus. In fact, thesauruses are awesome. But be deliberate with which word you choose as your replacement. Make sure the connotation and the meaning fit up with what you’re going for.