Repetitive Words & Phrases ~
As authors we tend to repeat words and ideas for two reasons:
1) by accident
2) on purpose
I know, this seems ridiculously straightforward but it’s important to recognize where we do this in our writing and why during the editing process to help make our work speak clearly and keep our readers’ attention.
Repetition by Accident
This often happens in a first draft when we’re writing just to get the ideas out. Even if you’re a writer who edits as you compose you will see this and work to correct it before moving on with the next idea. Here are two examples:
“Naomi looked out the window. Glancing down the street she noticed that the trees looked darker than usual. A storm was coming.”
In this instance the exact same word “looked” is used in consecutive sentences. This close proximity will cause the reader’s brain to briefly wonder why another word wasn’t used – it acts like a mild stubbing of the toe to our consciousness.
“Dean’s tired eyes betrayed the extent of his insomnia as he lifted a sloppy hand to his face, tiring from the simple effort.”
In this instance the route word “tire” is used in the same sentence. You might think that each manifestation of the word gets across a slightly different idea and is
different altered enough (see, I just did it in this explanation with “different”) so as not to be a distraction but it is. They are too close for comfort, so to speak.
Either one of these examples can happen interchangeably – you might have two close sentences that use similar root words or you might have one long sentence (like mine with the word “different”) that uses the exact same word. As long as you look for these hiccups while you’re editing, you’ll maintain pace and minimize visual/auditory distractions (we do say the word to ourselves in our minds after all) keeping the focus on the story and not the quality of your writing. Aim to have a few sentences between similar or same words and try rephrasing to find a way to say the same thing instead of just swapping the offending word out for a synonym.
Repetition on Purpose
Now, you may be thinking that repeating a word is an acceptable literary form often used in rhetoric or speech writing to reinforce an important idea – and you would be right. However, writers who use this technique follow a specific pattern and cadence, use the rhythm of the words to make the impact and not just the repetition. This is called parallel framing or a parallel structure and it tends to repeat phrases more so than single words. For example:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here you can easily see the parallel structure created with the words “I have a dream that…” and I’m sure you can feel the impact of the importance of this idea with each successive use. Mr. King, Jr. also repeats the idea of “sweltering with” in a single sentence in relation to a metaphor to drive home and bring prominence to this notion.
As you make your way through yet another edit of your manuscript, be certain of your intent. If you’ve just accidentally repeated a word because it made sense to use it as a “placeholder” until you had time to think of a better word, make sure you resolve these instances so that when you choose to lay out a parallel structure with a repeated idea or phrase it will make the impact you desire and not get lost in drafted language.
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