Mastodon The Writing Desk: Tips for new writers Part One - Repetition, by Wendy Janes

4 July 2017

Tips for new writers Part One - Repetition, by Wendy Janes

Lady Writing - Albert Edelfelt (Wikimedia Commons)

Previously Tony invited me to write a post for his blog about how to have a positive proofreading experience. I’m so pleased to be invited back to write this series of four posts for new writers.

As a proofreader I come across the same types of errors over and over again and thought it would be helpful to group some by theme and share them. The themes are repetition, dialogue, rules and consistency, and although they’re not intended to be comprehensive guides, I hope they’ll help you improve elements of your writing.

These suggestions are things you can do when you’ve finished pouring the first draft of your story onto the page/screen and you’re revising, editing or proofreading prior to sending your work to an editor or proofreader. The more polished your work is before it goes to the professionals, the better job they can do.

So, let’s get on with the first post: Repetition

Discover, search for, and eliminate your crutch words – words we overuse in our writing. We all have them. My worst one is ‘just’. I just can’t stop using it (see what I did there?), closely followed by ‘smile’. When I’m writing a first draft, my characters smile all over the place, whether it’s to show happiness or to cover anxiety, you name it, they’re smiling. After a good edit, they’re no longer so smiley!

Here’s a short list of common ones: believe, feel, felt, glance, grin, just, look, nod, now, realise, really, that, think, turn and very. These can be deleted or replaced, sometimes with minimal reworking of a sentence. The word ‘just’ can often be deleted or it can be replaced by ‘only’ or ‘merely’, depending on context.

Many authors have their characters repeatedly sitting or standing or laughing or walking, or biting their nails, running their hands through their hair, raising their eyebrows. This type of repetition can be almost invisible to authors, but it can irritate readers and take them right out of the story.

I’ll pause here to say that when handled carefully, repetition of words and phrases can work wonders to help set a scene, bring out a character trait, create an atmosphere, add drama, anticipation and pathos to a story. There are some wonderful examples of the effective use of repetition here:

Back to repetition that doesn’t enhance anyone’s writing: repeating the same words within the same sentence or paragraph. Let me introduce you to Daisy and Horatio to illustrate this:

Daisy heard a knock at the door. She walked to the door and opened it to find Horatio standing in the door, a huge bouquet of roses in his arms.

You could turn the above into something like:

Daisy answered a knock at the door to find Horatio standing there with a huge bouquet of roses in his arms.

Another handy search you can carry out is for sentences beginning with the same word or phrase. These and other repeated words will jump out at you when you read your work through to yourself, or better still, when you read it out loud. There’s absolutely no problem in starting a sentence with ‘He…’ or ‘She…’ or ‘I…’ , but when every sentence in a paragraph begins ‘He…’, unless it’s done on purpose for effect (see above), the writing starts to sound a bit samey.

Avoid having your characters thinking something and then repeating that thought immediately or a few lines later in dialogue or narrative. This often happens when an author has been editing and they haven’t realised that the same information has been given twice in quick succession. Let’s pop back to Daisy greeting Horatio at the door:

Seeing his sparkling green eyes peeking at her over the bouquet banished all her fears that these past weeks of silence from him meant he had lost interest in her.

‘Darling, I’ve missed you so much. All these weeks of silence, I’ve been fearful you were losing interest in me.’

Here I would advise an author to choose which information to relate in dialogue and which in narrative.

One more thing to avoid is having characters repeating information again and again throughout a novel. After we’ve heard Daisy telling Horatio that the reason her favourite flower is the rose is because her beloved grandmother grew them in the grounds of her childhood home, we don’t need to hear her saying it again in chapters 3, 5 and 8. Although, what could work is if the author ensures that it’s clear that Daisy is either oblivious to this repetition or she’s doing it on purpose and how this impacts on her relationship with Horatio. In this case the repetition is being used specifically for character development, and basically shows the reader that the author is on top of their material.

When searching for repetition, I find Word’s ‘find’ function extremely helpful.

I hope you’re now feeling ready to return to your manuscript, eager to hunt down those repeated words and phrases. If they’re enhancing your writing, then great, otherwise, off with their heads.

Wendy Janes 
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About the Author

Wendy Janes is a freelance proofreader for a number of publishers and many individual authors. She is also a caseworker for The National Autistic Society’s Education Rights Service. Author of the novel, What Jennifer Knows and a collection of short stories, What Tim Knows, and other stories, she loves to take real life and turn it into fiction. She lives in London with her husband and youngest son. You can connect with Wendy online and discover more about her via her Facebook author page, her website, Amazon author pages (UK/US) and Twitter @wendyproof.  


  1. I really enjoyed this post, Wendy. Really, I did really. (Guess one of my crutch words!)
    I am off to check through for some of the others you mention as well as the sitting, smiling, glancing and such.
    This is a really helpful post (there! Dione it again!)

  2. Great article Wendy. Just and that are two of mine that I can't stop using and have to go back and check on. There is a programme I sometimes use too that has picked up repeated phrases. Can't remember what it's called though 😀


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