Dec 11 2018
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Avoid repetitive writing with these 4 tips

Shawna Ayoub Ainslie shares four revision practices that will help you eliminate redundancy in your writing and keep your readers reading.

Repetition in writing can happen when writers become too reliant on certain words, phrases, or sentence structures. We can fall into a rut when we don’t add some variety to our choices. Sometimes the best method to break free of writing redundancies is a conscious return to minimalism.

If your draft needs work, it’s helpful to strike through extra words, do away with adjectives, and strip your writing down to the barest form possible while still retaining essential meaning. Writers can then build up from there, with careful attention to verbs to allow the action words to carry the narrative.

Stripping down your work, though, might feel to some like driving on bald tires—one bump in the road and the tire feels like it’s going to blow, causing you to spin out and lose direction. Instead of erasing all possibility of traction, use these tips for clearing your written path of unnecessary repetition to maintain a grip on the road:

Circle repeated terms

This technique is useful because it allows you to step away from your writing and look to see how crowded your narrative might be. Too many repeated words? Time to break out a thesaurus. But be careful…

Underline words that have matching meanings

It’s entirely possible to overuse your thesaurus. We’ve all been there. It is the quintessential swing of the pendulum from one extreme of repetition to the other. Instead of relying on the same word, we use every simile possible and convey its meaning again. And again. And again. When your text is overcome with similes and synonyms, ask yourself: does what you’re repeating bear repeating, or can you omit it altogether, or leave just one instance of repetition? A good question to ask yourself repeatedly (ha!) in your revision process is, “Am I being clear?” If you need to say something more than once, perhaps you aren’t being as a clear as you thought. If you are being clear, though, you should be able to trust your reader to follow along.

Read your work out loud

Make notes as you go, starring sentences (or lines in non-metered poems) that have the same length and structure or marking places where your sentences are varied. Repetitive sentence structure creates textual monotony. Regardless of what is happening in your writing, good writing becomes boring when it relies too heavily on one method of communication. Make sure to use long and short sentences, fragments, and to create layered meanings when you break lines in poetry.

Gain a better understanding of style—yours and others’

Sometimes repetition is a good thing! Songs use refrains to create a chorus, a part to which everyone knows the words and can sing along. Some poets employ refrain lines to create a musical effect, and some poetic forms build repetition into their structure to create a certain mood or emotion, or to call a reader’s attention to a specific image. Even in prose, whether fiction or nonfiction, you might repeat certain images to create visual echoes, a more subtle method of repetition that shows rather than tells readers how to feel, what to pay attention to, and so on. Know the difference—by reading and considering other writers’ uses of repetition—what works and what doesn’t. Learn your own proclivities, the kinds of words, phrases, sentences structures, and so on, that you use most often, and try to switch it up a little.

Stronger word choices create traction, while repetition erodes your tires.

In the end, reliance on repetition causes the reader to remember they are reading; what you want is for readers to lose themselves in the scenes you’ve written. Reducing repetition serves to smooth out the writing, allowing the reader to settle in deeper. Remember: stronger word choices create traction, while repetition erodes your tires. Maintain your grip on the writing road by saying it right the first time, so repetition isn’t necessary. Happy travels!

Do you ever use repetition as a stylistic choice? Can you think of some examples of crafted rather than accidental repetition? Will you use these tips to reduce accidental repetition in your writing? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: 5 reasons why word choice matters so much in good writing

3 reasons not to fear your writing haunts

Writers, revise or edit? How and when to do both

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