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The Unforgivable Writing Sin of Unintentional Repetition

It was pointed out to me a number of years ago that writers have a bad habit of using the same words, terms or catchphrases over and over and over again – ad nauseam – throughout their stories. And that got me concerned.

What made me downright paranoid was when my all-too-observant editor highlighted how many times I myself committed such unacceptable faux pas (faux pases? Faux passes?).

At first, I did try laughing her comments off. Being ever so careful about what words I put down on each page – and being an editor myself who makes a point to look out for writing sins of the sort – I even told her I’d do a search through my about-to-be-published manuscript just to prove her wrong.

She wasn’t wrong.

I was horrified! And I immediately went through the document to make a whole lot of necessary (or nitpicky) corrections.

Fast-forward five years, and I’m in the middle of writing my latest novel-in-the-making. It’s coming along too: 100,087 words and counting.

Actually, it’s going to need to be cut down, since I probably have another 30,000 words to go, and that’s an unacceptable word count. But that’s a topic for tomorrow. Or Friday.

That aside, I have to wonder if I’d have the whole first draft finished by now if I could just get over my sometimes debilitating paranoia, which has me typing out a paragraph or two and then stopping to squint critically at the new lines. In so doing, a word or phrase will jump out at me, and I’ll be hit with the dreadful notion that I’ve used it before…

Maybe even repeatedly!

So I’ll press the CTRL and F buttons on my keyboard simultaneously, then slowly, purposely type in whatever term I’m doubting, only to discover the atrocious truth that I’ve already used something like:

  • “Sure enough” seven times in 111 pages

  • “Regardless” a whopping 16 times in 131 pages

  • Some derivation of “sigh” no less than 19 times in 140 pages.

Oh, the horror!!!!!

Like any true creative writer, I start panicking (a mark of a real novelist is to be at least slightly insane and get upset about stuff that normal people don’t care about), wondering what synonym I can use to cover over my unacceptable lack of originality.

I could go with “Just as he thought.” Except that I already used it eight times. A CTRL + F search shows that.

“As expected”? Better, but six times still seems like a lot…

How about “Not surprisingly”?

Once! I only used it once!!!!

We have a winner, people. Everyone can relax now. Writing sin absolved. Catastrophe averted.

Averted except, of course, for those 16 examples of “regardless” and 19 times a character sighed that I’m totally going to have to go back and fix.

But here’s a rational note to often irrational writers like me:

Yes, I am going to have to go back and rethink some of my word choices. I’m also going to have to delete whole entire sentences, add further details about characters I introduced in the beginning and then totally forgot about later on, and otherwise smooth out a whole lot of rough edges.

However, that’s all work for another day, or another draft, as it were. None of it should matter during a first draft. There are no writing sins to consider when you haven’t yet completed your initial manuscript.

As I tell my Novel Writing I students and my Innovative Editing clients, the point of working on a first draft is to complete a first draft.

Until that’s accomplished, consider your writing sins absolved.



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