Friday, May 1, 2015

Avoiding Repeated Words

Too many repetitions of the same word in a short space, such as within a single paragraph or even withing a single sentence, can be distracting to your readers and throw off the flow of your prose. Take a look at the following example:

     The wall was too tall to climb, but only just; it was short enough to seem climbable but tall enough that a fall from anywhere near the top would kill you. Raek studied the wall carefully and realized that the top of the wall was covered in a slimy-looking green moss that would make climbing impossible. But if he couldn't climb it, how would he get over the wall? The wall was between him and the chalice. He had to get past the wall.

Notice how the words "the wall" get repeated over and over again? Six times in one paragraph. Some variation of the word "climb" appears four times as well. It feels awkward and clunky.

No matter how good the word is, too much will make your readers sick. Don't be a Trunchbull.
Cleaned up, that paragraph might look like this:

     The wall was too tall to climb, but only just: it was short enough to seem scalable but tall enough that a fall from anywhere near the top would kill you. Raek studied the wall carefully and realized that the top was covered in a slimy-looking green moss that would ensure that anyone clinging to the rock would lose their grip. But if he couldn't climb the wall, how would he get over? It was between him and the chalice; he had to get past.

This version is smoother, with just three uses of "the wall" and two of "climb."  Some of the repeated words were removed by heavily re-writing the sentence, some were simply not necessary to begin with and could be removed without changing anything else, and others were replaced with synonyms ("scalable" in place of "climbable").

That final method, using synonyms, is one of the easiest ways to avoid repetition:

     The manor loomed above her, at least three stories tall. The entire edifice was wreathed so thickly with crawling ivy that it was difficult for her to tell what the manor was made out of.

In this example, we've used edifice in place of manor in one spot, to avoid using the word "manor" three times in two sentences. The variety of descriptive words helps the prose to flow more smoothly.

The same thing can be done to avoid repeating a character's name too often. Take this example from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn (emphasis added):

     "Fears?" Kelsier asked, turning to look up at Sazed. Despite Kelsier's above-average height, the Terrisman was still a good head taller. I'm not sure if he fears anything, Saze."

Notice how the author avoided repeating Sazed's name by referring to him as "the Terrisman." It is the same method of avoiding word repetition.

Some cautions:

Don't use too many synonyms

In the example above, we used edifice in place of manor. Here are a few other words we could possibly have used: building, structure, dwelling, residency, or mansion. But if you look at that example again, you'll notice that I chose to use the word "manor" twice rather than replace it with one of these words. Why?

Too many synonyms can become confusing to the reader; it becomes difficult for them to keep track of what they all refer too.  It also calls too much attention to the fact that you're trying to avoid repeating yourself, which can pull the reader out of the story. Usually, you don't want to use more than one synonym for a given word in a section. So in the first example, I might have described the manor simply as a building when the characters were far away and still approaching it. Then, when they have drawn close and I am describing the manor's appearance, I use manor and edifice, but no more than that. 

Make sure that it is clear what your synonym refers to

Another hazard of using synonyms is that they are not always as clear as the author thinks. We'll take the example of manor again. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists the following words as synonyms for the word "manor":  castle, chateau, estate, hacienda, hall, manor, manor house, manse, palace, and villa.

The problem with most of these words is that they evoke a completely different image than the word "manor."  Take this example:

     Amy was relieved to finally leave the manor behind. As they drove away, she turned and looked out the back window as the palace vanished behind the trees.

That didn't work at all, did it? Using palace almost made it sound as though there were two buildings, as if Amy left one building and is now looking at another. Don't use synonyms unless it is clear what they're replacing.

One more caution on using synonyms as placeholders for a character's name (as in the Mistborn example above) can be found in this post.

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