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Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Writing - self-edit - repeated words

My latest ‘completed’ book hit a little over 126,000 words. 

[I’ve put ‘completed’ in quotes because a book is never finished, it’s abandoned after you’ve done all you can to polish it. Looking at it again after even a small gap of time, you’ll always find the need to change things. This constant pressure to perfect the work will mean it will never see the light of day. Be bold. Do the necessary re-reads, self-edits and then let it go.]

Part of the self-edit process is to identify commonly repeated words; these may differ for every writer.

The words I’ve noticed I’m prone to over-using are listed below. They’re not exhaustive, naturally. The number of times the words appeared in a search of the text are shown (and in brackets the number they were reduced to after checking); I never blanket change, that can lead to nonsense words cropping up.

The reduction of repetitions can be processed in various ways: often, the word isn’t necessary at all; sometimes the dialogue is sufficient; if repetitions are close together on the page then I find a new word.

I've made additional comments at the end.

My repetition word list

Smiled – 55 (invariably overused) (15)

Nodded – 115 (again, overused, often close together on the page!) (44)

Laughed – 24 (this is good, I made a conscious effort while writing to avoid using this!) (14)

Grinned – 27 – (not bad, either, since it is very common usage) (11)

Sighed – 11 (again, I was on the look-out for this while writing so they are few) (7)

Looked – 48 (35)

Moment – 81 (45)

Glanced – 61 (30)

Few – 84 (53)

Down – 163 (103) (e.g. why use ‘sat down’ when ‘sat’ works as well?)

Up – 255 (horrendous! Search entails a space in front of and after this word) (163)

Out – 252 (same applies as above…) (176)

Back – 105 (ditto) (91)

Just – 70 (an insidious word, but often used in speech so many retained) (45)

Called – 52 (45)

Saw – 23 (21)

Walked – 41 (0)

Ran – 52 (35)

Pointed – 45 (0)

Suddenly – 15 (not bad, but probably too many) (3)

Seemed – 122 (86)

Felt – 77 (often the feelings can be conveyed without using ‘felt’) (49)

Thought – 60 (50)

Though – 101 (I've noticed in other books that sometimes this is used when the writer meant 'thought' and vice versa) (84)

Shrugged – 25 (again, while writing I tried to avoid using this, but it can still be reduced) (15)

Stepped – 60 (surprised at this, but this number was reduced) (36)

Turned – 103 (far too many!) (82)

Shook – 58 (not a big reduction, but I validated them all) (46)

Appeared – 27 (25)

Peered – 37 (32)

Some – 139 (another insidious word!) (77)

Abruptly – 29 (used instead of ‘suddenly’ sometimes) (17)

Eyed – 30 (instead of ‘looked at’ etc) (27)

Gazed – 3 (2)


In the scheme of things, very few of these repetitions are too bad when you consider the total number of words is in excess of 126,000. But the process serves to validate the text from a different perspective.

Naturally, there’s a need to be careful about substituting with a new word only to find that the ‘new’ word is a repetition you’ve already reduced!

This is only one strategy in the self-edit process. I normally do this after the final read-through. That read should concentrate on the narrative flow, the internal logic of the story, and detecting any inconsistencies.

Earlier read-throughs or self-edits will have considered point-of-view aspects, emotional content in a scene, character motivation and visualisation of a scene, to name a few.

Happy self-editing!


JC Kang said...

I totally feel your pain! I just went through my 124k manuscript the other day for the words I use to much.
400 eye
300 head
150 turn
200 smile
150 nod
150 bow
200 look
100 gaze

The list goes on.

As long as I don't have more than once instance per page, I usually let is pass. Because really, a word like "head" twice one page stands out a lot less than a word like "tentative" twice in a chapter.

Nik Morton said...

It's always a worthwhile exercise, JC. Another glitch to look out for is the misuse of 'to much' when it's really 'too much'...! I agree, if the repetitions don't occur on the same page/or near each other (such as, on the next page) then there's probably no problem. Though, again, sometimes the words are not necessary at all at re-reading. And of course there are other words for 'turn', for example, depending on the context, action etc.

Tinthia Clemant said...

In the grand scheme of things, most readers don't even notice the repetition unless the word is different in some way. For example, I recently read a NYT bestseller and found, in one chapter, that the MC 'fretted' five times. Go back and reread a book you love. Note the times your words appear but also note you didn't notice them when you read it for the first time. It's always a good thing to avoid repetition but never lose the flavor of the story. Blessed be, Tinthia

Nik Morton said...

Thanks for the comment, Tinthia. Appreciated. Word repetition isn't necessarily bad - sometimes it is used for emphasis, or for character purposes. Even so, an author - or a good editor - should spot echo word repetition, where the same word is used two, three or even four times in a paragraph or a scene; that is just sloppy. Obviously, certain stand-out words can be spotted - such as, phantasmagoria, for example - so they should not be overused in my opinion (unless for the reasons I've stated).