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Thread: Repeated words in a novel

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    Repeated words in a novel

    Do people mind a lot if there are lots of same words throughout the novel like "He" or "I" or any other words, maybe even combinations such as "He said" "He looked" ? I don't, but I wonder do other people notice it and do certain words which repeat through the novel turn them off at some point, and maybe if someone feels generous he or she could give an advice on how to evade this. :p

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    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    The only way to avoid repeating something, be it a word or a phrase, no matter what it is, to the extent it becomes an irritant to readers is to be aware of the fact the word or phrase is being over-used.

    You mentioned 'He looked' and that is one that soon becomes tedious. He smiled/grinned/gulped are other ones.

    When we use a word we should use it deliberately by choice and because it has a definite meaning in story terms to the reader who should not be left asking - why on earth is George or whoever constantly doing all this stupid looking, grinning or smiling or whatever?
    Last edited by Bufty; 09-12-2017 at 10:01 PM.
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    practical experience, FTW neandermagnon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Toothpick View Post
    Do people mind a lot if there are lots of same words throughout the novel like "He" or "I" or any other words, maybe even combinations such as "He said" "He looked" ? I don't, but I wonder do other people notice it and do certain words which repeat through the novel turn them off at some point, and maybe if someone feels generous he or she could give an advice on how to evade this. :p
    Small words like the, he, it etc are invisible and readers don't notice repetitions of them. In addition, trying to avoid saying these can lead to horrifically awkward sentences that are way more noticable and awkward than the small word repetition ever would have been.

    "Said" tends to be invisible and replacing it with much more noticeable words like "squawked" or "ejaculated" also leads to disturbingly awkward phrases and it's often better to just say "said". Bear in mind that not every line of dialogue needs a dialogue tag. A new paragraph indicates a new speaker. An action can indicate who's speaking (this goes in the same paragraph as the speaker) for example instead of:

    "Hi," said Jane.
    "Hi," said Jack.
    "It's so annoying when the buses are late all the time," said Jane.
    "Yeah, you wait for half an hour then three turn up at once," said Jack.
    "And it's always worse when it's raining." said Jane

    Could become:

    "Hi, " said Jane.
    "Hi." Jake smiled at her.
    Jane looked at her watch and sighed. "It's so annoying when the buses are late all the time."
    "Yeah, you wait for half an hour then three turn up at once."
    "And it's always worse when it's raining." Jane laughed.

    That's gone from 5 "said"s to just one, and not a single one replaced with a synonym. Not that all possible said synonyms are bad. They're fine when they're the most fitting word to use and too many actions to indicate who's speaking make the characters come across as twitchy (especially if you overuse stuff like shrugged, nodded or changes in facial expression as actions). None of these things are bad unless done excessively. And you can get away with a lot of "said"s without anyone noticing because it tends to be invisible.

    Regarding "he looked" - overuse of any word that relates to senses or sensory organs may indicate that you are using too much filtering. For example:

    Filtering: Jake looked at the sky and saw that it was grey.
    Not filtering: The sky darkened.

    If you've already established that Jake is the POV character, whenever you mention anything (like the colour of the sky) the reader will know it's your POV character that's observing it, so you don't need to say that they observed it. Sometimes, filtering used sparingly can be very excessive, but used excessively it creates a distance between the reader and the character and it can feel like you're reading a story about eyes doing this and ears dong that and eyes falling upon... etc etc etc. In any case, excessive use of all sense/sensory organ words are an indicator that filtering may be an issue.

    The worst thing you can do is replace excessive filtering with synonyms to avoid repetition: "her gaze fell upon the sky and observed that it was grey. Her eyes glanced at the washing which she noticed was still on the line. Her skin felt the cold rain drops start to fall and she saw that the washing was starting to get wet" etc etc etc It's still filtering even if you eradicate all the repetition.
    Last edited by neandermagnon; 09-12-2017 at 10:22 PM.
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  4. #4
    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by neandermagnon View Post
    Small words like the, he, it etc are invisible and readers don't notice repetitions of them. In addition, trying to avoid saying these can lead to horrifically awkward sentences that are way more noticable and awkward than the small word repetition ever would have been.
    I agree with this. Words that call attention to themselves, like "perspicacious" or "lenticular," on the other hand, will feel repetitive if they're used more than once in an entire book.

    Special words for actions, like "smirked" will also feel repetitive if used multiple times.

    Regarding "he looked" - overuse of any word that relates to senses or sensory organs may indicate that you are using too much filtering. For example:

    Filtering: Jake looked at the sky and saw that it was grey.
    Not filtering: The sky darkened.
    This exactly.

    With the use of proper names, using them too much can feel repetitive and excessive if they're used when they're not needed. But as neandermagnon said, there's a technique called filtering, which calls attention to the fact that the reader is being told what a character perceives directly. This can feel repetitive and also create narrative distance. If narrative distance isn't the writer's intent, there are ways to change sentence structure to bring the reader closer to the description, to make them feel what the pov character is perceiving without reminding the reader that an external narrator is between them and the character's perceptions.

    So instead of writing: Jane sneaked into the room. She saw a book sitting on the dusty table by the door. She noticed that the room smelled fusty, as if it had been closed up for a long time. She heard a susurrus of voices coming from the floor above and worried that the place was haunted.

    One could write: Jane sneaked into the room. A book sat on the dusty table by the door, and the place had a fusty smell, as if it had been closed up for a long time. A susurrus of voices came from the room above. Oh God, maybe the place was haunted..
    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 09-12-2017 at 10:47 PM.
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    Thank you dear awesome people, this is super helpful ^_^

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    One of the pernicious ways where repetition of simple phrases sneaks in is excessive filtering: "he heard", "she saw", etc. If you feel you are using too many of those kinds of phrases, look for examples of filtering, and get rid of any that serve no narrative purpose.

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    Come on you stranger, you legend, Devil Ledbetter's Avatar
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    Repeated gestures, particularly, bother me in fiction. I think what it boils down to is a silly notion that everything that is said or done must be reacted to in some visual way, especially facial reactions. The writer who believes this inevitably gets lazy and starts pasting stock gestures all over the place: he smirked, she rolled her eyes, he sighed, she grinned, he quirked an eyebrow, she frowned.

    Then there are the tediously drawn out lip/mouth actions: a slow smile spread across her face, the corners of his mouth tugged up into a grin, her lips curved gradually into a smirk, a frown pasted itself across the lower half of her face. I hate these things.

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    practical experience, FTW Cekrit's Avatar
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    When I did my final edit of my novel I found the word "churning" about 50 times in a 123k novel.

    Everything was churning, the water churned, the fire churned, her stomach churned with discomfort, the darkness churned, he churned, she churned- why is everything churning!!!!?!?!?

    I changed every instance of churn/ing/ed and used a better descriptive word. I am not sure if its even in the novel once now- I was so annoyed with myself.

    edit: in regards to your post.

    Things like "he" or "I" are ok, so long as it makes sense.

    I tried reading a book a few weeks ago and put it down page one. Every paragraph was just so...idk, not my cup of tea.

    Sally was dancing. John put down the bowl and looked at sally dancing. Sally smiled at John, John started dancing as well. Sally decided to grab the bowl and walk outside. John was upse and didnt dance.

    I skimmed through the rest of the book and the entire story was like that. 2-5 chatacters would have actions in the same 4 sentence parapgraph and it was just way to much repetition on the names i couldnt cope
    Last edited by Cekrit; 09-13-2017 at 03:12 AM.
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  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by Devil Ledbetter View Post
    Then there are the tediously drawn out lip/mouth actions: a slow smile spread across her face, the corners of his mouth tugged up into a grin, her lips curved gradually into a smirk, a frown pasted itself across the lower half of her face. I hate these things.
    Oh...

    Now you've highlighted it, I've just realised my work is peppered with these kinds of descriptions.

  10. #10
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    Some instances of repeated words doesn't bother me as such unless they're filtering (as blacbird says) or cliche (as Devil says).

    Lots of sentences starting with "he/she verb" can indicate too many simple sentences, and/or ploddingness.

    My pet bugbear atm is the fad for no dialogue tags. It's okay for a character to "say/said" something. No really, it is. When every dialogue tag is replaced with an action beat, I feel like I'm reading a book where people keep twitching spasmodically; as if the act of voicing words causes a random body part to flap around. Which is fine if that's your intention, of course, but I suspect it's not in most cases...
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  11. #11
    Come on you stranger, you legend, Devil Ledbetter's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Flanderso View Post
    Oh...

    Now you've highlighted it, I've just realised my work is peppered with these kinds of descriptions.
    So is the MS I'm beta reading. Happy to be of service.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    When every dialogue tag is replaced with an action beat, I feel like I'm reading a book where people keep twitching spasmodically; as if the act of voicing words causes a random body part to flap around. Which is fine if that's your intention, of course, but I suspect it's not in most cases...
    Many many many lines of dialogue require neither a direct attribution tag, nor an action beat. In fact, the best dialogue in narratives I've read carries the clarity and energy needed right in the quote itself. If you want a good example of this, read Craig Johnson's Longmire novels. He uses direct attribution when he needs it, for clarity or perhaps emphasis, and action beats when they provide meaningful action. Otherwise, a lot of the dialogue is simple quotes.

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  13. #13
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Yes, that's true but I suppose I meant more the practice of replacing a necessary "said" with some sort of twitchy fidget gesture--usually pointless.
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    Beastly Fido Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Devil Ledbetter View Post
    Repeated gestures, particularly, bother me in fiction. I think what it boils down to is a silly notion that everything that is said or done must be reacted to in some visual way, especially facial reactions. The writer who believes this inevitably gets lazy and starts pasting stock gestures all over the place: he smirked, she rolled her eyes, he sighed, she grinned, he quirked an eyebrow, she frowned.

    Then there are the tediously drawn out lip/mouth actions: a slow smile spread across her face, the corners of his mouth tugged up into a grin, her lips curved gradually into a smirk, a frown pasted itself across the lower half of her face. I hate these things.
    I like them for the image they paint, and for the characterization, if they're done sparingly and if they are calling attention to the expression for a reason. They definitely call attention to themselves, though.

    Sometimes a grin is just a grin. Sometimes the context makes it so clear that a character is grinning that it need not be mentioned at all.
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    Come on you stranger, you legend, Devil Ledbetter's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roxxsmom View Post
    I like them for the image they paint, and for the characterization, if they're done sparingly and if they are calling attention to the expression for a reason. They definitely call attention to themselves, though.
    Sometimes a grin is just a grin. Sometimes the context makes it so clear that a character is grinning that it need not be mentioned at all.
    Certainly never say never is a fair rule. But there would have to be an excellent reason to call painstaking attention to a common gesture that everyone can already visualize.

    If we're staying in POV, I'm not sure I want to know the character who sees a pedestrian facial expression like a frown and stops to think about the non-act of the lips tugging here and there, and corners of mouths doing what not, and the relative pace at which it happened. My reaction is "Eww, quit staring at mouths!" These (generally) needless descriptions trash the immediacy of the facial reaction, and they don't do a damned thing to make it less stock. A smile is just a smile. Lard it with another 5-10 trite words about lips and tugging and mouths and curves and it's still just a smile.

    At the same time, those purple smile descriptions seem like the writer is shouting Look At Me! I AM WRITING!

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    "A smile is just a smile. Lard it with another 5-10 trite words about lips and tugging and mouths and curves and it's still just a smile.

    At the same time, those purple smile descriptions seem like the writer is shouting Look At Me! I AM WRITING!" I agree, though I still think people like those kinds of complications, cause as much as it may seem tedious to write about the expansion of wrinkles around the character's mouth, writing short and simple "he smiled" can leave a rather empty feeling after seeing it over and over again, imo at least.

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    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Something of a false dichotomy there, though. It's not either or.

    regardless, anything without internal world, hinted or shown, will fall flat eventually.
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  18. #18
    Come on you stranger, you legend, Devil Ledbetter's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Toothpick View Post
    I agree, though I still think people like those kinds of complications, cause as much as it may seem tedious to write about the expansion of wrinkles around the character's mouth, writing short and simple "he smiled" can leave a rather empty feeling after seeing it over and over again, imo at least.
    To be clear, I don't have a problem with writing a longer description of something usual as long as that description illuminates something. The corners of her mouth tugged upward into a smile is just a long winded cliche for she smiled. It adds nothing. If the reaction "he smiled" or "she smiled" is turning up so often that the reader is getting bored with it or feeling empty, throwing in lips tugging this way and that is not going to fix the problem or fulfill the reader.

    The real problem is (as I stated upthread) the misbegotten notion that every line of dialogue or bit of action requires a character to react by making a face. There are roughly a billion things you could do in a story other than have characters make faces at each other. Yes, you need to show their reactions but those reactions do not need to be limited to smiles, frowns, blushing, and eyebrow quirks or wordier variations of the same.

    Years ago, I beta read a novel that had a ton of great things going for it except that the characters constantly made faces at each other. In every scene someone would smile, someone would smirk, someone would blush, someone would scowl, someone would quirk an eyebrow, someone would roll their eyes and someone would frown. To make a point that the writer wasn't getting, I copied a scene and replaced every instance with MADE A FACE. It helped the writer see the problem. I highly suggest this exercise to anyone so tired of writing "smile" over and over that they're tempted to blather on about tugging lips.

    Seriously.
    Last edited by Devil Ledbetter; 09-14-2017 at 06:25 AM.

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  19. #19
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    hahaha sounds like a great advice really

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    Likes metaphors mixed, not stirred Chris P's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roxxsmom View Post
    I agree with this. Words that call attention to themselves, like "perspicacious" or "lenticular," on the other hand, will feel repetitive if they're used more than once in an entire book.
    One of my heroes has a bad habit of doing this. It's like he has a "weird word of the day" calendar and he needs to use the weird word five times that day. If I didn't love his stories, it would be a dealbreaker.
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    Kushiel's Dart is full of "limned".

    I literally used perspicacious just today :p
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    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Devil Ledbetter View Post
    To make a point that the writer wasn't getting, I copied a scene and replaced every instance with MADE A FACE. It helped the writer see the problem. I highly suggest this exercise to anyone so tired of writing "smile" over and over that they're tempted to blather on about tugging lips.

    Seriously.
    Huh. That's a really good idea.

  23. #23
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    Some repeated words can be invisible, and others can be annoying/distraction. I generally don't mind lots of "he said" for dialogue. And overuse of beats can be worse. Also, if you use the same word to start a lot of sentences (especially if the sentences have similar structure) it can become 'visible' to the reader.

    I've also got a list of words that I know I overuse. I search for 'em and check: did I use the word nicely, or was I being lazy. I don't know if there's a thread somewhere in here where people have posted their overused/weak words for editing. (my list includes: look, really, than, was, eye-power, feel, even, but, and a bunch more).

    yt

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    I write in the first person for my books, so I obviously use 'I' a lot, especially at the beginning of sentences, and I get annoyed with it even. I try to find ways to restructure sentences so they don't start with I, because redundancy can hurt you. One thing that helps is reading over 1st person POV to so the author eliminates the use of I.

  25. #25
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    Using a different subject for the sentence can eliminate many unnecessary uses of 'I', as can focusing more on what is observed rather than on the observer.
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