Monday, June 27, 2011

Oh, The Repetition! Make It Stop!

Repetition is your novel's worst nightmare. Your readers', too. It's like water torture, that little drop plink, plink, plinking on your forehead over and over until you want to scream "YES I KNOW HE LIKES HER EYES IF YOU TELL ME AGAIN I WILL HURT SOMETHING."

There are so many ways to get rid of repetition, and I highly recommend going through your manuscript at least once with a focus on this oh-so-annoying writer habit. I mean, we all do it. It's unavoidable. That's what revision is for.

Let's start small and go big, ya?

Punctuation Level
Just like words lose their impact in repetition, punctuation does as well. My personal crime is the overuse of dashes, but it's important to watch out for ellipses, semi-colons, exclamation marks, etc. I get so crazy with dashes that one of my friends said I was allowed just one every other page at the most.

As you go through your work, look closely at the punctuation you favor and consider varying it up.

Word Level
I think word repetition is the one we're most aware of. I personally can't stand to have a repeated word in a sentence. I avoid it at all costs. If it's a "big word" or a made up word or a "bad" word or something punchy/funny, it should be used sparingly. They have impact—they also stand out much more when repeated.

A reader will remember you describing something as "lenticular" seven times, while "round" tends to blend in more, you know?

And then there are personal word ticks. Mine are "just" and "even." I usually have to remove over 100 of each from my rough drafts. I try to watch for it while writing, but I still don't notice how often I do it.

Phrase/Sentence Level
Sometimes with get into structural ruts. Look at your sentences—are they all the same relative length? Do you use certain phrases more than you should? Are your sentences' grammatical structure all the same?

I tend to have an extreme love of participle phrases. Sometimes my early writing will look like this: "He walked to the door, wondering who it could be. He opened it, eyeing the strange figure. The man wore a top hat, dripping wet from the rain."

Same. Structure. Over and over. That is not good. Sentences need to be as varied as words, if not more. Monotonous grammar kills.

Paragraph Level
The layout of your words is far more important than we sometimes realize. Just like a bunch of same-length sentences is boring, so it a page full of same-length paragraphs. Our minds seem to thrive on variety. Visual, mental, physical, what-have-you.

I tend to write in three-line paragraphs. I have no idea why, but I do. My pages will often be three-line paragraphs all the way down if I'm not paying attention. Other writers tend to abuse the one-liner, having one every other paragraph. Some writers write EPIC paragraphs that make the entire page one miserable block of text.

There's no right or wrong, as long as you switch it up.

Chapter Level
Yes, even chapters can benefit by some differences in length. Look at your chapters. Are they all ten pages long? Is there a way to make some snappier and some longer? Perhaps. Keeping the reader guessing is good. A short chapter may propel them to the next. A long chapter may keep them reading and invested.

Not saying you should have one-pagers when all your others are twenty, but they certainly shouldn't all be the same.

Watch out for how you begin and end chapters as well. I tend to have a lot of chapters ending with someone leaving, which is not only repetitious but gives a reader the chance to put down the book. Look for different ways to begin and end chapters that will keep readers intrigued.

Another place to watch for repetition is in and around dialogue. Are you explaining what your character just said? Is this conversation similar to any others? Is there new information given, or is old info regurgitated in a different way?

Also watch for character actions. Does your MC solve problems the same way every time? Is he or she facing the same problem over and over with no real change or complications? Is your character growing and making different choices, or just staying the same?

Be aware of setting repetition, too. How many scenes take place in the living room? At school? In the car? Perhaps some of those can be changed to more exciting/new venues.


As you've probably gathered, the key here is variation. It's essential to good writing. If you are over-looking repetition, I highly recommend you mend your ways. Taking a closer look at all these things has greatly improved my own writing, and I hope it helps you, too.


  1. Great post on repetition! Thanks!

  2. I'm so glad to discover I'm not the only one who has an unholy addiction to dashes. I know I'm going to have to - at some point - (see - I did it again!) edit approximately 8,412 of them out of my manuscript.

    My name is Rick - and I'm a dashaholic.

  3. Great breakdown of the different types of repetitions. I actually have some small, purposeful repetitions in my current WIP because my main character loses her memory. It's made me extra attentive to being repetitious in other ways-- I want those purposeful repetitions to stand out, so they have an impact.

    This is a post I'm bookmarking for revision purposes. Thanks!

  4. I'm pretty sure I have all the above mentioned repetition issues...the first step is recognition. Thank heaven's for the find button and wordle--those two things alone have saved me mountains of time and pointed out things I'd have never noticed.

  5. Lately, I've noticed that everything in my book "seems" or is "as if" some other thing. I need to cut down on that stuff.

  6. This has a lot of great info that will help me as I revise. Thanks.

  7. This post is perfectly timed for me. I'm currently revising my WIP, so thanks for the help. You're amazing!

  8. I was just thinking of this. I've been taking a hard look at my writing and am trying to vary as I go, but being open to breaking my ruts when I go back through in editing. Learning how to mix it up is hard, but the first step to dealing with a problem is acknowledging its existence.

    Thanks for your wise words, Natalie! They're always appreciated.

  9. I've been very concious lately of a plot element that I'm wondering if I'm repeating it a lot in dialogue and character thought in the last few chapters.

  10. Fantastic post! I'm glad to say I have only one thing I really need to watch out for, but I do it constantly: the gerund! I've had to go thru my ms so many times to change things up. It's better now, but I fear there are still too many. Ugh! Thanks, Natalie. I think I'll copy this post & put it in my Great Writing Tips folder.

  11. Gah! There are so many types of repetition. I'd have to say the one I do the most blindly, chapter length. I think it must be a subconscious OC habit I have. Great points.

  12. This is a great post for me. I'm in the early stages of editing, and this is exactly what I need to watch out for. I'm especially bad with the dashes and -ing words. There are so many types of repetition, and it's amazing how easy it is to lose sight of them.


  13. I did a whole blog post recently on setting repetition, as I tend to set similar scenes in the same place. Characters X and Y are talking? Oh! That happens in the library! This also leads to scene repetition, with the same dialogue happening over and over.

    You got me with the eyes though. Mr. Darcy make think Elizabeth's eyes are fine, but it's Miss Bingley who should repeat that, not him. Drat. Time for another revision.

  14. I enjoy 'even' and 'just' a little too much, as well. Oh, clutch words, why must you be so handy? :P

  15. I am definitely guilty of repetition when it comes to semicolons in particular. I like them because I often write long sentences, and the semicolons not only prevent run-ons but also allow me to write longer sentences. When I read through my draft, I noticed that the male MC kept running his hands through his hair too many times. It made me think of the original 90210 TV series where the male characters kept wrinkling their eyebrows every five minutes, and I didn't like it then either.

  16. This explains why too much of almost anything isn't so good. Finding what one does, however, is the biggest hurdle. My best method is reading my work aloud.

    With my plays, it's even better to have actors come over and read it for me. Amazing how many are willing to do this for a few brownies!

  17. Another awesome nuts & bolts writing post. Your writing advice is so helpful, and both easy to understand and apply. Thanks for this post!

  18. Great post. Yes, repetition!! I do this way too much and chuckled with your example because that is totally me (except I think I use "his smile" way to much). And, I agree with Lynne: your advice is very helpful and easy to understand and apply! Thanks!

  19. Great post! Another thing I notice sometimes is that writers tend to not be consistent on whether or not they're going to do "internal monologue" (italicized MC thoughts), so that they pop up randomly, when needed, and not necessarily at the "right" level of repetition.

  20. This was a fabulous post! Repetition is the worst! Yet so easy to do without even realizing it.

  21. Great post. I have clutch words too. Fun times trying to get rid of them in revisions. ^_^

  22. Great advice. Dashes, "just" and repetitive sentence structure are the biggest things I have to watch out from overdoing.

  23. Good stuff! My last MS was full of dashes. I don't know why. I'm not normally into them.

    I also hate the same sentence structure, especially when it's not the Subject-Object-Verb simple structure. I remember reading a book where it felt like every other sentence was an 'ing clause, followed by a regular bit.

    "Reading Natalie's blog, Claire saw the problems with repetition."

    Pretty much turned me off that type of sentence completely.

    I'm also a believer in purposeful repetition. I love when the final chapter/stanza repeats a few words from the first.

  24. Excellent practical advice and impeccably timed as I'm near the end of a first draft. I have a magnetic whiteboard in my home office with various "things to remember" when writing and revising and this post is definitely going up there!