As a freelance editor, I frequently see manuscripts that are full of repetitions. How do you avoid overusing the same words? Simple. You become aware of them. This doesn’t mean you need to watch for your favorites as you’re writing. Leave that for the editing stage.
Here are some commonly used repeaters:
-and: This isn’t a bad word, but it’s a good idea to check your sentences. If you have too many that start with “and”, you may want to vary the style.
-just, really, simply, very: Cut to tighten the prose.
-that: While you can’t always cut “that”, you usually can.
-look, glance, gaze: While it’s good to alternate these verbs, if you use them too often, it can be unnecessary. If we’re in the character’s POV, we see what they see automatically, so you don’t always have to say “he looked at the cat”. If he describes the cat or what the cat is doing, we know he’s looking at it.
-walk: How did he walk? Use a stronger verb to show us if he’s rushing, stomping, or how he’s walking.
-smile: Yes, your characters should smile, but try to keep it to one or two smiles a page (generally speaking). There are other ways to show a person is happy other than smiling.
-nodded, shrugged, sighed: I’ve seen pages full of nodding, shrugging, and crying. Keep your usage of these verbs to a minimum.
-suddenly: This is often thought of as melodramatic and unnecessary. Show what happens next. We should be able to determine if it was sudden or not.
-he/she (character’s name): Watch your sentence variation. Do you have several sentences in a row that begin the same way? This often happens with “he/she” and the character’s name. For example: “He answered the door. He was surprised that Jane was there. He motioned for her to come in. He followed her into the living room. He sat beside her.” Sometimes, it’s not as obvious as this, especially if the sentences are longer, but readers notice and can be thrown from the story when they do.
-back: You could replace this with “returned”, but most of the time, you don’t have to mention that the person is heading back to the living room. If he was there and now he’s returning, it’s obvious and doesn’t need to be pointed out.
-it: While you can’t completely avoid using “it”, you can often replace “it” with something more specific, especially at the beginning of a sentence.
-well: This can be used for stylistic reasons, but keep it to a minimum.
-now: Watch this one. Writers can get carried away with “now”.
-pulled, pushed, grabbed: For some reason, I frequently see writers use these verbs repeatedly on the same page, usually during an action scene. Try replacing these verbs with a synonym or stronger verb, or say the same thing in a different way.
-turned: This is similar to “back”. While you sometimes need to tell us the character turned, that’s not always the case. During the editing process, ask yourself if it’s really necessary to tell the reader that the character turned or if it would be obvious.
Repeaters aren’t always bad. Sometimes, you need to use them to show emphasis. In that case, they’re usually seen in “threes”. For example, the same word appears in three consecutive sentences or three sentences within the same paragraph. However, this should be used sparingly or the reader won’t recognize the emphasis, believing instead that you’ve repeated yourself.
But why is it important to not use repeaters? You want to keep the writing tight and fresh. Repetitions don’t do either, and, if we’re honest, can be considered lazy writing. That’s not exactly the picture you want to paint, is it?
Your best bet is to identify your personal favorites and watch for them.
What repeaters do you find in your writing? How do you correct them? Do you delete the repetition or use a synonym instead?