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Apart from the eloquent and poetic usage of repetition in writing, it is viewed as something writers should limit.
e.g. ‘It was a veritable masterpiece, a masterpiece which would endure for centuries.’
When editing authors’ work, I often come across repeated words. Word processing packages don’t always pick up that an identical word has been put down twice: ‘than than’ springs to mind. It’s so easy to think you’ve only typed a word or even a phrase once, but you’ve actually written them twice. It’s not unheard of to see something like:
‘He was a quiet man by and large by and large, and he had the biggest heart.’
So whilst editing watch out for words or phrases that might mistakenly be there more than once.
I tend to advise my clients if a word is repeated within three or four lines. Of course there are exceptions. And although you might be able to get away with certain words like ‘with’, ‘more’, and so on being used more than once in a sentence, I suggest that the less common the word, the more sparing you should be with repeating it. If I came across ‘cumbersome’ twice on the same page, without good reason, I’d be having a quiet word in the author’s ear.
It’s not uncommon to see a writer use the same verb twice in just a few lines and then the noun form of that word too. If there’s an alternative which doesn’t jar (important!) it makes sense to use it.
James caught the edge of his jacket on the door. Glancing at his watch he saw it was ten to five. He’d have to run if he was to catch the train. As he left the building it started to rain. He hurriedly opened his umbrella. The last thing he wanted was to catch a cold.
Now, the first instance ‘caught’ could easily be changed to ‘snagged’ or similar. Likewise, ‘to catch the train’ could be ‘to make the train’. Not so easy to get around the idiom ‘to catch a cold’. But I’m guessing your reader would notice the two usages of ‘catch’ in that short section. If your work was littered with examples like this, it could eventually grate on the reader’s nerves.
I mentioned that it was important the word didn’t jar. Quite. If as a result of changing the word simply to avoid repetition, the sentence sounds stilted or doesn’t fit the context as well, then you shouldn’t substitute it, or you should find another way of saying what you are trying to.
An easy way to get around repeating a noun is to use its pronoun. This may sound really obvious, but surprisingly not everyone does it all of the time.
‘She picked up the mug, drank from the mug and placed the mug back on the table,’ would sound odd. It would be more natural to say, ‘She picked up the mug, drank from it and placed it back on the table.’ And it would sound wrong to hear, ‘She picked up the mug, drank from it and placed the tankard back on the table.’
Likewise your reader will notice if you overuse certain words throughout your entire novel. Your aim is to engage your reader, so anything that might annoy them needs to be vetoed! I often notice this with dialogue tags. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with having a different dialogue tag to ‘said’ or ‘told’, it might detract from the reader’s enjoyment if you use ‘countered’ or ‘harrumphed’ or ‘huffed’ three times a page for two hundred pages. Each of us I am sure has pet dialogue tags or words we overuse – mine is smiled.
And be aware of how your paragraphs start. If you have several paragraphs in a row starting with ‘she’ or ‘he’, it’s maybe time to rejig things a little.
As a final example, you might repeat a concept four pages later in your novel without being aware you are doing it.
P139 – He put his feet up on the desk and stretched.
P143 – He stretched his arms over his head and placed his feet on the desk.
So what’s the solution? Read your drafts out loud. Use a thesaurus. Make a list of words you know you overuse and keep it handy when you do your second and subsequent drafts.
Next week: Ellipses and suspension points – by special request!