When reading a document, there are any number of writing errors or distractions that can take you out of the moment and interrupt the flow of your reading. The error I will discuss today is word repetition: how it occurs, and, more importantly, how to avoid it.
Read It Out Loud
You may have the memory of former teachers or professors scrawling "Word rep!" on your essays, papers, and reports while in school. This happened to me once or twice, and often, when I reread the offending paragraph or page, the repeated words seemed to jump out at me, jarring and discordant.
I noticed that the more rushed I was in completing an assignment, the more likely it was that I would have word repetition in my writing. Why? It’s simple: when I rushed to finish writing something, I didn’t have the time to properly read through it and take note of any words or phrases on which I might have relied a little too heavily.
I’ve found that the easiest way to avoid word repetition is to reread what you’ve written out loud (though in your head works well enough in a pinch, especially in public settings!). Reading your writing out loud is like seeing it in a new light—when you’ve read something in your head over and over again, the fact that you used “very” or “theorize” five times in on the same page can be easy to miss. Reading your work out loud means you can hear those words that pop up too often, words that might otherwise be missed when simply looking at the page.
Cut Filler Words and Phrases
A clear, concise sentence will often be the one most appreciated by a reader. In fact, flowery, verbose, overwritten prose/writing has a name: “purple prose.” And to be clear, purple prose is an undesirable descriptor to have attached to your writing—perhaps I’ll explore why that is in a later blog!
The simple truth is that using too many filler words (e.g., well, very, though, so, just, actually, etc.) to pad out your sentences obscures and clouds the meaning behind your writing, and this can be especially noticeable in academic writing, as well as writing that often employs the passive voice. (For more information on avoiding academic “gobbledygook,” click here.) In the end, the more “extra” words you use, the higher your chances of repeating them, so keep your writing clean!
Use a Thesaurus (but do so carefully)
Many writers use a thesaurus to avoid repeating certain words that might pop up a lot in their work. However, a thesaurus is a tool to help you avoid repetition, it’s not a cure for it. If you use the word “hot” twenty times in one chapter, going back and changing each “hot” to “boiling,” “blistering,” “scorching,” “humid,” or “feverish” won’t fix the problem—it’s a problem all on its own, called “elegant variation.” It’s just as jarring to the reader whether you use “hot” twenty times in the chapter, or whether you use twenty different words that all say the same thing and have the same meaning.
Paint a visual for your readers if you can—what other ways can you show them what you’re describing? For instance, in the example I used above, instead of saying it was “hot,” the writer could describe how the sweat dripped down their back, or how the humidity hung in the air, or how the sand burned beneath their feet.
In academic writing, this becomes more difficult. For writers who might not be as flexible in “painting a picture” for the reader, simply writing in the active voice can eliminate a lot of filler words from your writing. When you reiterate a point, try to avoid simply repeating what you said earlier—rephrase the point by using a different sentence structure, or a different way of arguing. And, lastly, academic writers, try to avoid phrases that we editors see all too often:
- “And, therefore…”
- “In conclusion…”
- “To conclude…”
- “However, it is…”
Even Shakespeare was known to occasionally employ word repetition in order to emphasize a particular point—but he did it deliberately and strategically. It is possible to use repetition in ways that benefit your writing, but it’s more important to first evaluate your work, and make sure that word repetition isn’t already creeping in and undermining the readability of your writing.
© Damen, 2002
7. Repetition of Words.
"Military success is what made the Romans successful in most of their successes."
Success, I get it! Repeated words are more than monotonous. They underscore a writer's failure to see all the facets of an argument because, if you have really thought about your topic and looked at it from several different perspectives, various aspects of the theme will have occurred to you.
Different aspects of a thesis require different expressions, that is, a different word reflecting a different perspective on your paper's theme as it relates to different circumstances. Different, got that? No? Then I'll show you by varying the words in what I just said, and see if the point isn't clearer. "Different aspects of a thesis require their own expressions, that is, a certain word chosen to reflect each individual perspective on the theme as it relates to particular circumstances." Well, even if the second sentence isn't clearer to you, at least it sounds more intelligent.
Especially deadly and monotonous is the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive sentences: "The Romans conquered Gaul. The Romans spread their culture all over Europe. The Romans ate boatloads of bread." Avoid this sort of repetition, in particular. It lends a tone of speaking down to your reader, as if you were addressing a child, an attitude which won't go over well in academic discourse.
Remember, too, that not repeating words is one way to show how well you've done your homework, because by employing a diverse and subtle variety of expressions you show how hard you've wrestled with the issues before you. That is, the depth and range of your word choice hints at the thoroughness of your preparation. When your writing is richly textured, it's easier to believe your thinking is as well.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.