How to Avoid Repetitive Words and Phrases in Fiction Writin
How to Avoid Repetitive Words and Phrases in Fiction Writing
Writing fiction, as with any other kind of writing, can be challenging at times, particularly when it comes to choosing the right words to describe the setting, set the mood, or define the characters. Many times, writers struggle to find the right words, often falling back on overused words and phrases. Repeating words and phrases weakens your writing, confusing the mood, deflating conflict, dulling character descriptions, and generally killing your reader's interest in the story. Learning to avoid repetitive words and phrases takes effort and practice; the following steps will guide you in recognizing the words and phrases you can do without and in choosing better words.
Improving Your Writing
Use descriptive nouns and verbs whenever possible.Using specific nouns and verbs ("roses" or "tulips" instead of "flowers;" "chuckled" or "guffawed" instead of "laughed") puts a sharper image in the reader's mind than does using the more general equivalents. The choice of words can also convey additional information; for example, mentioning giving someone tulips in the story suggests the act takes or took place during early spring, which is when tulips bloom. Someone who chuckles is mildly amused, while someone who guffaws is deeply amused.
- The idea that words create images in the mind is called "connotation." When choosing a descriptive noun or verb, make sure it conveys the emotions your character is experiencing and the images you want to put in the mind of the reader.
- An exception to choosing descriptive synonyms is for the word "said" in dialogue tags ("he said, she said"). Other than using "asked" when the speaker is asking a question and "replied," "responded," or "answered" when the speaker is answering a question, it's usually better to use "said" in a dialogue tag. It's even better to write dialogue with as few dialogue tags as possible, using narrative to describe what the speaker is doing while addressing someone else or having the speaker use the name of the person he or she is talking with in the dialogue.
Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.Sometimes adjectives and adverbs are necessary to convey an image, when nouns and verbs alone aren't specific enough: "American Beauty roses" as opposed to just "roses," for example. However, using adjectives and adverbs when you don't have to often just adds more words for your readers to slog through to get to the image you're trying to convey; saying "She marched into Mr. Smithers' office" carries a stronger image than "She walked angrily into Mr. Smithers' office."
- Adjectives and adverbs are unnecessary when the noun, verb, or adjective they're modifying already conveys the image. You don't have to say "trumpeted loudly," because "trumpeted" already conveys the image of loud sound. They're also inappropriate when they contradict the word they modify. You don't say "rather unique," "somewhat unique," or "very unique," because something is either unique or it isn't.
Avoid repeating a word in a sentence when you use a different meaning of it.Saying "Over the past century, the planet Xytox was invaded over 50 times" is confusing, because "over" is first used as a synonym for "during" and the second time as a synonym for "more than." While both meanings of "over" are valid, you should replace one or both uses of "over" with the synonym.
Avoid using "crutch words." Certain words and phrases lend themselves to being overused in writing, fiction or nonfiction. A partial list of these words and phrases is given below:
- �Am"/"Are"/"Is": These forms of "to be," and their past tense forms "was" and "were," usually come off as vague or passive when used too often. Saying "I was in the den" is both vague and passive, while "I sat quietly in the den" offers action and suggests a contemplative mood.
- �Beautiful"/"Lovely"/"Attractive": Remember the maxim "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." You can use "beautiful" effectively in first-person narratives, where the beholder is speaking to the reader, but it's not as effective when telling a story in the third person.
- �Big"/"Huge," "Small/Little/Tiny": These words are subjective. To a 5-year-old child, almost all adults are "big," while to basketball center Yao Ming, many things are "small." When possible, convey size by using comparative imagery, for example, "golf-ball-sized," "grapefruit-sized," "mountain of a man," and so on.
- �Exciting"/"Thrilling": Each person has his or her own idea of what is and isn't exciting. Excitement is something you should demonstrate to your reader, by putting your characters on the roller coaster and letting them scream their lungs out instead of describing it as "exciting."
- �Fascinating"/"Interesting": Whether something is "fascinating" or "interesting" to the reader depends on the reader's areas of interest. It's appropriate for a character to call something "interesting" if that character then or shortly afterward explains why that item was interesting. (As for "fascinating," you might want to leave that word to Mr. Spock.)
- �Go"/"Went": While these words convey action, they don't convey an image of the kind of action. Other verbs, such as "walk," "trot," "ride," or "drive," convey specific action images and are verbs you should favor. Also, "go" and "went" are often informally used in place of "say" or "said," which can confuse the reader if those words are used to describe both speech and action.
- �Got": The past tense of "get," "got" is often used in place of "have," "caught," or "found," all of which bring different mental images to the reader's mind. "Got up" is also used to mean "awakened." You should try to use more precise words in your narrative in place of "got."
�Important":Importance is usually subjective; you can better convey importance by showing it through such things as a character's job and responsibilities, family position, or military rank.
�Seem":This word is vague, as it requires a judgment from the reader. It works in first-person narratives where the narrator is presenting his or her judgment to the reader to agree or disagree with, but not as well in third-person narratives.
- �Stuff"/"Things": These words are imprecise, often connoting both immaterial concepts as well as material objects. Use them occasionally when you're trying to sound informal, but use words that better convey material or immaterial nature of what you're referring to.
- �That": The word "that" can be used as an adjective, an adverb, a pronoun, a subordinating conjunction, or the introduction to a restrictive clause. The problem comes when you write a sentence that uses the word in more than one of these ways. You can often write so that the word "that" is understood, or use a different form of another word to eliminate the need for "that," such as substituting "using" for "that uses" in the previous sentence.
- �Very": "Very" is a type of adverb called an intensifier. Use this word infrequently; instead convey intensity through your overall description, not by using intensifiers.
Avoid cliches.Cliches are phrases that have been used repeatedly outside their intended context to the point where their intended meanings have been forgotten or ignored. Calling something "easy as pie" or "more fun than a barrel of monkeys" sounds descriptive, but really isn't � as isn't necessarily true, as someone who has trouble with pie crusts or has been attacked by monkeys would attest.
- One alternative to using clich�s is to use re-worded versions of cliches. Instead of saying "when hell freezes over," you could say "when Satan asks to borrow my snow-blower."
Expand your vocabulary.To avoid repeating words and phrases and to be able to choose appropriate words and phrases in your fiction writing, you need to be familiar with those appropriate words. See the suggestions listed under "Expanding Your Vocabulary."
Expanding Your Vocabulary
Use the dictionary.Dictionaries contain definitions of words, their usage, and their origins. All of this information can help you decide if a given word is the right word to use in the section of text you're working on. Dictionaries are available in both hard-copy and online format; you may want to make use of both formats.
- Use the dictionary to help you communicate better with your readers, not to inject fancy words into your writing that send them to the dictionary to understand what you're trying to say. Do use less-familiar words that can readers can figure out the meaning of from the context the words are used in.
- Specialized dictionaries exist for certain industries that have their own jargon, such as information technology, the law, or medicine. If you write a certain type of fiction, such as medical thrillers, police procedures, or science fiction, you may want to get a dictionary devoted to specialized terminology to go alongside your general dictionary.
Familiarize yourself with the thesaurus.A thesaurus is a listing of synonyms, grouping words and phrases together that have the same or similar meanings. Printed thesauruses are organized in 1 of 2 ways, either in dictionary fashion or with an index in the front, listing categories and code numbers for each subtopic, followed by the synonym groups that fall under those categories and code numbers. Online thesauruses feature a search field into which you type the word or phrase you want to find a synonym for and then list the synonyms grouped by the particular connotation (shade of meaning) of the word you typed.
Set aside time to learn new words.You can take advantage of vocabulary builders such as Word of the Day, in either day calendar or Internet form, and books such as "30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary."
Read a wide range of literature.As you read, pay attention to how the writer uses words to paint a visual picture in your mind and look for ways to emulate those techniques in your own writing.
Try your hand at poetry.Poetry makes considerable use of imagery and symbolism in the words it uses, as well as the meter and rhyme. Reading and writing poetry can help you learn to use words that convey images to others in your prose writing.
Play word games and quizzes.Games such as Scrabble, Bananagrams, and Unspeakable Words help you develop and practice your vocabulary, with the competition against other players substituting for the pressure of a deadline to stimulate your thinking process.
- Other word games, such as Boggle and Scattergories, test your ability to brainstorm as well as the extent of your vocabulary.
- The game You've Been Sentenced tests your ability to use words effectively in making complete sentences.
- Consider the audience you're writing for when determining how often to repeat a word or phrase. For young children, you may end up repeating more often because of their more limited vocabulary. For a military audience, you may refer to a submarine as a "boat" (naval parlance) as well as a "sub" in your narrative, but for a civilian audience, you may want to restrict the use of "boat" for a submarine to characters who have served in the navy.
- The steps given above under "Improving Your Writing" are intended for writing narrative more than for writing dialogue, as people generally don't speak as formally as they write. You can use repetitive words and phrases in the dialogue of characters you want to show as uneducated or quick to speak without thinking.
- Avoiding repetitive words and phrases should not put you off from using repetition to emphasize certain points. Just as repeating sounds in strings of words (alliteration and assonance) can draw the reader's attention to the writing, so can repeating certain word structures, so can repeating the first words in each sentence or clause, as in Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities." ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness�") This is known as parallel construction.
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