Repetitive writing happens when writers become too reliant on certain words, phrases, or sentence structures. We move off the unexplored paths when we don’t add variety to our word choices, instead leaning on well-traveled language or a trusted but unnecessary crutch.
Fear of the unknown is common, but writing is about taking risks. Sometimes the best method to break free of writing redundancies, to take the risks that turn writing (and later reading what was written) to adventure, is a conscious fork from the known.
Consider this: Creating a draft is the equivalent of taking a drive. You can stay on the roads you know, never straying, maybe stopping to appreciate the view from the same spots as previous passersby; or you can take unexpected turns, discovering clear roads free from what you and others have left behind.
That fork? In this case, it means choosing the least-traveled-by-you path and learning its curves as you go. When the road starts looking too familiar, your draft might need work. At this point in the drive, 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. From this minimalist place, you can rebuild, with careful attention to verbs to allow 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
Step away from your writing and look to see how crowded your narrative might be. Too many repeated words? You need to either eliminate the extras or find a synonym. 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 are repeating bear repeating? 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 clear as you thought. If you are being clear, though, you should be able to trust your reader to follow along. Not sure if anyone is following?
Read your work out loud
I can’t stress this tip enough, whether your writing hiccup is with redundancy or some other issue entirely. Reading your words, in your voice, is the best way to self-edit. 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, even 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, the part where 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.
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 journey you have created for them through words. Reducing repetition serves to smooth out the ride, 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. Happy travels!
Related reading: Write your way out of a rut
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