A couple of years ago, one of my critique partners pointed out that my character sauntered three times in one chapter. It was a good catch on her part because it totally escaped my notice. Today, author Helen Henderson addresses the good and bad of repeated words and phrases.
Welcome back, Helen!
Thank you for having me back at the Romance University.
Everyone has experienced lyrics or music that they could not get out of their head. At the least lapse of focus, you start humming the song. Authors have their own version of the stuck tune. Some call it a replicant — the same word or phrase used several times in close proximity. Another point is that in this context, the replicant and its cousins, the restart and repeater, are not intentional, but controlled by the author’s subconscious.
Replicants can strike an author regardless of their experience level. While the more books you’ve published and the, hopefully, accompanying increased knowledge of craft can make it easier to identify the replicants, it won’t necessarily prevent their creeping in during the writing process.
A tendency to write with specific words or phrases can be called an author’s “signature” or “voice.” You can repeat a word to establish a rhythm or for emphasis. In his post, 5 Ways to Deal with Word Repetition, Ben Yagoda advised that, “The more common the word, the more leeway you have in repeating it.” “Coruscating” used once to describe a wall of force slides under the reader’s attention. A second time, even if it several chapters away or near the end of the book, jumps out. Coruscating is not a commonly spoken—or written—word.
The degree of unusualness combined with the frequency is what helps determine the effect. However, when repetition penetrates a reader’s consciousness, it moves beyond style into something that an author needs to address.
A repeater is a variant of the replicant–and harder to spot. It differs from its smaller cousin by frequency. And the occurrences are not always near each other. Your repeater might be how you describe a kiss or a smile. “His lips twitched” is one I’ve been hitting with bug spray.
An additional complication is that replicants and the other repetitives are sneaky. The word, “but,” will infest one scene or chapter, only to be replaced by “some” in the next. And later in the novel the construct “then she” appears far too often. Or the majority of sentences within the space of eight paragraphs are in the form of “x and y and z happened.”
A special form of repetition that occurs when the same word starts multiple sentences in the same paragraph can be called restarts. For example, if three out of five sentences in every paragraph begin with, “She xxx,” it can go beyond rhythm and pace to throttle the reader and make their eyes glaze over.
Unfortunately, it takes human recognition, either from the author, their beta reader or their editor to locate and identify whether the use was placed for effect or merely a word that got stuck in the author’s subconscious. You can also read aloud any passage to see if any words are over-weighted. Creating a list of the words and phrases that have the tendency to appear in your work is one means of eliminating them. Then as part of your pre-submission editing, let the search or find function of the word processor highlight all occurrences of each word. A hint–when the page glows at you, rework is needed.
A grammar checker or proofreader can help to identify excessive repetition in a manuscript. Specialized programs that analyze word distribution are other tools available to an author. The reports they generate on the number of occurrences and the distance between the two nearest usages for any given word provide insight into what needs revision.
Not all repetition is bad. Cleverly crafted, deliberate repetition can become a strategic weapon in any writer’s armory. According to fiction editor Beth Hill, Repetition is a powerful force in fiction. It can emphasize setting, highlight a character trait, draw attention to a seemingly minor detail. The technique is great for making a point, for creating a mood, for establishing rhythm. Sometimes a repeated word or phrase hammers home a point.
There is a difference between planned use of a word more than once and a phrase stuck in your subconscious. As a writer, you have to choose which words and phrases you think would be effective, or how they would create the effect you want to achieve.
What repeated word or phrase have your or editors had to remove? And if so inclined, share how you root them out.
Talann’s future was far from assured. Although the son of two dragon lords, none of the old ones sang a welcome at his birth. And now years later there was still no sign of the awakening of a twinned dragon soul. From his birth, it was expected he would marry the only other child born to the dragon shifters, the Lady Lexii Beylnea. However, fate had other intentions. Talann and Lexii could not stand to be together.
Pledged to protect Lexii until the dragon lord’s intended mate appears, Glyn must fight the growing attraction to Talann—and to keep hidden the secret no one could never learn.
Destinies collide as fate decrees secrets be revealed and plans of men and dragon lord alike twist in the web of time. The freedom of the skies comes with a price.
BIO: A former feature-story writer and correspondent, Henderson has also written fiction as long as she could remember. Her background in history and managing a museum provides her with a unique insight into world building. Her heritage reflects the contrasts of her Gemini sign. She is a descendent of a coal-miner’s daughter and an aviation flight engineer. This dichotomy shows in her writing which crosses genres from historical adventures and westerns to science fiction and fantasy. In the world of romantic fantasy, she is the author of two series: the Dragshi Chronicles and the Windmaster novels.
Find her on online at her author website, at Goodreads or follow her on Twitter. Excerpts of her work, writing tips, and information on new releases can be found at http://helenhenderson-author.blogspot.com.
- Characters Leave, Authors Live On by Helen Henderson
- Stop…Too Much Detail with Helen Henderson
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- Stars…I Want a Galaxy of Stars. But All I Got Was One by Helen Henderson
- Helen Henderson presents: Are They You?