Declutter your text: Beware of repetitions

Repetitions can take different shapes: multiple occurrences of the same word, synonyms, pleonasms, redundancies. When used wisely, repetitions can be an interesting stylistic device. When used unwisely, they can severely harm the elegance of your text.

The easiest repetitions to spot are the multiple occurrences of the same word (or the use of a word in the same family). Of course, some words have to be repeated: “repeat” or its substantive “repetition” have been repeated 7 times by this point. However, it is wise to reduce their number as much as possible.Camouflaged cat c

When trying to avoid reiterations of the same words, don’t succumb to the temptation of the thesaurus. Using a synonym won’t get you rid of the repetition of ideas, it will only camouflage it a little. Or if you use synonyms, know that you are creating a repetition.

To really get rid of the repetition of ideas, you can first see if you couldn’t just delete the phrase or the whole sentence without deleting any useful information. Otherwise, you have to reword the sentence or the two or three sentences in which the repetitions occur until you are convinced that you express your ideas in the best possible way.

A pleonasm happens when you put together two words, one of which was already included in the other’s definition. Some examples would be “false pretence” or “safe haven”. By definition, a pretence is false and a haven safe.

marie_cecile_thijs_4Close to pleonasms are redundancies. How many times a year do you see or hear the phrase “plan in advance”? My own experience is limited, but I’ve never seen anyone plan anything after it was done. Or even plan it as it was being done. The act of planning is done in advance. If you really must stress that the planning process takes time and it should be started X time before the D day, then be specific!

In the same vein, you have the tautology: the act of repeating the same idea back-to-back. “I saw it with my own eyes”, “In my opinion, I think…”, etc.

You can find lists of redundancies, tautologies and pleonasms through search engines or… start analysing each and every word, wondering whether they’re absolutely necessary. Yup, studying writing will make you paranoiac. You’ll learn to live with it.

Tired of cat photographs yet?

Redundancies can also be a repetition of ideas whether in the same sentence or paragraph or through the entire text. I’ve had started a book quite recently, but the writer’s insistence on the love interest’s beauty and sexiness got old quick. It was like a broken record. The reader is not so stupid that you have to remind them all the time of the aforementioned ideas. Besides, it’ll make you look like you have nothing new and fresh to say.

If you really *must* repeat an idea, do it with intent: introduce it early and “prove” it in your conclusion; change the outcome and make it a progression as in the Three Little Pigs; make everything the same so that one thing stands out.

When finding a repetition while editing my texts, I ask myself 3 questions: 1) Is it there for artistic purposes? 2) Does it serve the text? 3) If the repetition is clumsy, is there any way I could reword the sentence to avoid it?

I think this will be the last post in the series for a while. If the subject interests you, however, I warmly recommend you to read On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

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Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeUse modifiers in moderation, Don’t dump details.


25 thoughts on “Declutter your text: Beware of repetitions

    • I make these mistakes all the time too. I can fix most of them while editing, but there are still a few that escape my attention and get published. It’s alright, nobody’s perfect. ^_^


  1. I hope you don’t mind but I have reblogged this on my own blog, on the basis that I would never be able to write on the subject as well as you have here! (And, no, BTW, I’m not tired of cat photos yet. The internet will never get tired of cat photos!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t mind them too much when you’re writing your first draft: that should be done as freely as possible to avoid writer’s block. These are points to keep in mind later, when you’re editing. ^_^

      Thank you for passing by!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for writing this article. I hope all writers take it to heart, especially the part about repetition of ideas. You’re right; repeated gushing soon gets old. Readers will remember the basic facts of relationships and opinions.

    I just finished reading a book where the MC’s grannie died a few months previously and readers are told at least six times in the first two chapters how much the MC missed her grandmother. Not shown, but straight out told in various words. Some is natural; too much is too much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you liked those!

      I sometimes use Hemingway App towards the last stages of revision: it helps spot extra adverbs, as well as other issues like an excessive use of passive tense, complex words or long sentences that could be hard to read. It does nothing for adjectives though.

      Wordcounter can help spot repetitions as well as rate the reading-level of your text (as an indication, I like to keep my texts at grade 10 because I’m an advocate of plain language).

      Finally, I use Grammarly (free) or Antidote (paying) to check for spelling and grammar mistakes.


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