5 Ways to Deal with Word Repetition

Word repetition can really weigh down your writing and slow down readers. Try out these five simple ways to tackle word repetition and improve your writing skills.

1. Develop Your Ear

I believe “word rep.” is the comment I write most frequently on student papers. That’s because word repetition is a telltale—maybe the telltale—sign of awkward, non-mindful writing, whether by students or anyone else. The writer has presumably gotten the pertinent information onto the screen, but has not taken the time to read the sentence to herself, silently or out loud. If she did, that word rep. would sound like fingernails on the blackboard. Consequently, “listening” to your sentences with the sensitivity to pick up word repetition is a strong first step to grappling with the problem. (There are a lot of other benefits to reading your stuff out loud—in fact, it’s my number-one writing tip.)


how-to-not-write-badToday’s post is by Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. He is a journalism professor in the English Department at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Memoir: A History; Will Rogers: A Biography; When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It; The Sound on the Page; The Art of Fact; and About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made; and co-author of All in a Lifetime: An Autobiography about Dr. Ruth Westheimer. He has written for Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times Book Review, Stop Smiling, and other publications. He lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two daughters.


2. Choose Your Battles

There are some nuances to my unified theory of word repetition, which boil down to: the more common the word, the more leeway you have in repeating it, and vice versa.

In the previous sentence, I repeated “to,” “word,” “more,” and “the” (twice, for a total of three times). That is not ideal, but it’s okay; readers are not likely to notice. On the other hand, I know I would have to wait at least a few more pages (if this were a multi-page article) before reusing the expressions “vice versa” and “boils down to.” Words like “repetition” and “common” would be somewhere in between. No matter how long the article is, I would not be able to use the notion of “unified theory” again.

[Do you underline book titles? Underline them? Put book titles in quotes? Find out here.]

3. The Pronoun Is Your Friend

I once had a student submit something very close to the following in an assignment: “Johnson is the youngest representative in the legislature.  When he was twenty-three, Johnson defeated the Republican incumbent.”

For some reason, a lot of people tend to needlessly repeat proper names, forgetting that they have at their disposal the very useful pronouns “he” and “she.” They have the added value of being in the category of common words, mentioned above, that can be repeated with near impunity. So the passage above could become:

“Johnson is the youngest representative in the legislature. At the age of twenty-three, he defeated the Republican incumbent.”

4. Just Say No to Elegant Variation

H.W. Fowler, author of the great early twentieth-century book Modern English Usage, coined the term “elegant variation” (which I’ll call EV) to refer a synonym, near synonym, or invented synonym used for the express purpose of avoiding word repetition. In Fowler’s view, and mine, elegant variation is not a good thing. Your efforts to avoid repetition are too clumsy and obvious. Take a look at two examples (EV in parenthesis):

“Hartnell read the newspaper. When he was finished with (the periodical), he got up and went outside.”

“Spence hit a home run in the second inning, his fifth (circuit clout) of the campaign.”

In both cases, as is often true, the simplest solution is just to take out the EV (along with the word “with” in the first example).  Incidentally, perceptive readers may have noticed that the second passage contains another EV: “the campaign.” Mediocre sportswriters are elegant variers to the bone, and they will reflexively seek to avid a common word, even if they haven’t used it yet! However, “season” is better than “campaign.”

5. Make Word Rep. Work for You

Let’s go back to something I wrote earlier:

“The more common the word, the more leeway you have in repeating it.” The repetition of “more” is okay and maybe even good—not only because it’s a common word, but because the repetition is deliberate, and helps create a strong rhythm. (The same is true of “because” and “repetition” in the sentence I just wrote.)

The key is using repetition deliberately, consciously, and strategically. If you don’t think it can be effective, imagine if Shakespeare had had Macbeth say: “Tomorrow, and the next day, and the one after that, creeps in this petty pace from one twenty-four-hour period to another.”

Get me rewrite!

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16 thoughts on “5 Ways to Deal with Word Repetition

  1. JBM

    This article concerns repetive style; however, its writer exhibited flawed prose in the opening paragraph.

    “Word repetition can really weigh down your writing and slow down readers. Try out these five simple ways to tackle word repetition and improve your writing skills.”

    By assessing this paragraph we see that “really” isn’t needed to modify weigh down. Further, the descriptor “down” is redundant and poorly selected.

    The opening article would read better as follows: “Word repetition can impair your writing and frustrate readers. However, utilizing these five methods will solve this issue.”

    A more simple edit to the published author’s errant opening sentences would be: “Word repetition can hamper your writing and slow readers. Try these five simple methods to avoid word repetition. (The writer will imprive his craft by decreasing repetitive verbiage. Therefore, “improve your writing skills” can be omitted.

    Just my take on this piece.

    1. SoulFireMage

      Couldn’t resist, want to insist, redundancy proliferates onward:

      “Word repetition can impair your writing and frustrate readers. However, utilizing these five methods will solve this issue.”

      Switch Utilize for use or better, just cut it.

      “Word repetition impairs your writing and frustrates readers, so use these five methods to resolve repetition, sooth your readers and fix the issues.”

      Nearer to the original maybe:

      “Word repetition impairs your writing and frustrates readers. These five methods can help fix these issues.”

  2. skylang

    Thank you so much for the points about EV and deliberate repetition. I go a bit crazy with my editor who is an absolute fanatic about never, never repeating a word twice, even if it’s the central point of the article and detracts from the meaning if you use the wrong word, just for the sake of not repeating the first occurence.

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  4. berger44

    Since “Write” in the title of your book is a verb, shouldn’t it read “How Not to Write Badly,” using the adverb? Or am I missing the joke?

  5. Kerr Berr

    Not repeating or re-using the same words over and over again and again is a pretty good and decent way, method, and formula to keep your writing from being redundant, superfluous, extraneous, or full of unnecessary repetitions or unneeded terms, words, or phrases that you’ve already used.



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