Editing: Removing Word Repetition

Courtesy of Stuart Miles at
My writing group has several writers who excel at finding repeated words in our members' writing.  Why is this important?

The Problem
In the seventh grade, a student teacher of mine said "um" repetitively. My classmates and I found ourselves counting the number of times she said "um" rather than focusing on math.  It was a huge distraction.  The same problem occurs when a writer over-uses or repeats a word in a short passage of text.

One of the most common places this can happen is in first person narratives.  If the writer isn't careful, most of the sentences will start with "I" followed by a verb.  Just like my seventh grade math classmates, the reader gets bored.

This issue isn't limited to the word "I" in first person narratives.  It can be any word duplicated within your document.

Finding the Repetition
Several years ago, a friend proofread my work in progress.  Her feedback surprised me: "You use a lot of  the word that."

I ran Word's Find feature on the 300+ page document.  What did I find?  Over 1000 occurrences of "that."  That's more than 3 times per page.  Ouch, that hurt, but it was a problem I could fix.

The good news is it's easy to find repeated words once you're aware of the problem. Try:
  • Reading your manuscript out loud
  • Putting the document aside for a few days before reading it again
  • Asking another writer or editor to highlight any repetitive words or phrases they notice
  • Using the Find feature in Word

With the Find feature, you need to know what words to look for.  Some common words to search for are:
  • that
  • very
  • too
  • just
  • really
  • quite

As you become familiar with your favorites, you will know which ones to look for in Find.

Fixing the Repetition
In many cases, a good thesaurus will help correct the problem. Look for a word that means the same thing and use it instead.  Variety keeps your reader interested.

If you overuse "I" in your first person narrative, try to rephrase several sentences so you don't need the word "I" in the text.  This may take some work on your part, but it will be worth it.

What about my issue with "that?" Many of the re-occurrences could be removed without affecting the sentence's meaning.  In other cases, I switched the verb to a gerund (-ing ending) to remove "that." Be careful with switching to a gerund, though.  You don't want to overuse -ing words either. I didn't get rid of all of the "that's," but I did reduce the number drastically.

When you eliminate repeated words in your writing, your work will improve, and the reader will have a chance to focus on your story rather than how many times specific words appear.

What's your "favorite" repeated word in your writing?


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