On the lookout for repeated words in manuscripts

Posted on April 17, 2016 (Subscribe to Blog)

All too often when writing, I end up with repeated words in my manuscript. I'm sure this is true of just about every other author in the world. A quick example of what I mean:

Looking for repeated words in manuscript 1

It's not always noticeable as I'm writing because of the way I'll come back and rewrite a part of a sentence and so on, but it stands out during a read-thru. Even then, it amazes me how much can slip through unnoticed.

This example is from my latest short story addition, "The Silver Wand (Part 4 of 4)." As always, I write, edit, edit again, read it through, edit some more, and so on until I'm happy. But I freely admit I might not be quite as diligent as with my published novels. In this case, I asked Brian Clopper to have a quick read, and he noticed a high use of the word "look" and its variants. In fact there were 31 uses in a 6280-word story. I don't know if there's such a thing as a reasonable number of times a certain word can be mentioned per thousand words, but in this case, "look" stood out because I used it too many times in a very short space. Three uses in two lines of text? That's too much.

So I did a search and highlighted them all. Then I went through and adjusted the text to get rid of as many as possible. It probably wasn't necessary to get rid of as many as I did, but that's what happens once a word leaves a bad taste in your mouth!

Here's a before-and-after example of what I did:

Looking for repeated words in manuscript 2Click to zoom

There are probably dozens of other repeated words in any single novel that could and should be cleaned up. But they really only become visible in extreme cases. As a reader, once you become of aware of a problem word, it's impossible to shake it, and suddenly that word seems to pop up everywhere. It's like when you're thinking of buying a car; as you leave the dealership to go home and think about it, ou notice that same type of car everywhere you go. Where did they all come from?

In fact, I still remember "wordlessly" as used by Terry Brooks in one of his original Sword of Shannara books, eg: Wordlessly, he got up and walked out. It kept popping up to the point of being annoying.For me, that particular word was used one too many times in a short space, just enough for me to think, "Huh, there's that word again..." After that, I noticed every single mention of it. I read those books twenty years ago and I still remember it.

That was a much more noticeable word that "look" and its variants, but it's the same problem, and authors should be aware. This is yet another reason beta readers are essential.

Comment by GRAEME JENKS on Sunday, April 17, 2016...

I like reading these post as it helps become aware of various problems that could pop up. Even though it's just a hobby for myself at the moment. Funny, you mentioned the Terry Brooks books, I've just started to read these books again and I'm currently on the Wishsong Of Shanara. Thanks Keith.

Comment by BRIAN B. on Sunday, April 17, 2016...

I hear you. Very annoying. Let me know!!!

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Sunday, April 17, 2016...

Actually, Brian, I haven't seen much of that at all in your book!

Graeme, let me know if you spot "wordlessly."

Comment by BRIAN B. on Sunday, April 17, 2016...

Yay! I still find a few and I already fixed a bunch.

Comment by BRIAN CLOPPER on Monday, April 18, 2016...

Keith got on me about my use of slightly when he did a beta read of one of my recent books. It's such a weak word and easily removed without compromising the meaning of the sentence. Now, I'm much more vigilant about that word.

Keith, it might be fun to do a post about the words you love using. You know, those fun words we have in our arsenal that tickle us pink when we get to use them.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Monday, April 18, 2016...

Yes! And also words that we dislike for whatever reason.

Comment by ROSAMUND on Tuesday, April 19, 2016...

I need to look look out for this, I write fanfiction, (mostly IOF, LOTR and Harry potter)

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Tuesday, April 19, 2016...

You write IOF fan fiction? Anything online I can look at?

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