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I wasn't entirely sure how to phrase this in the question box, so it may seem like a duplicate. But, I did look at these questions (What are the tricks to avoid repetition in writing?, How to avoid repetitive sentence structure?) and didn't find the answer to my question. What I want to know is What can you do to stop using the same words over and over again in dialogue and narration?

Allow me to elaborate. I'm in the process of editing a 50k word manuscript, and I realized by using the navigation pane that there are certain words that appear multiple times in each chapter, sometimes per page. They are sort of filler words but removing them would change the structure and meaning of the sentence. I frequently use words like: wait, just, actually, even, definitely, only. These are not the kinds of words you can easily replace with a synonym. How do I stop using them so much?

I don't know if it's my speech patterns influencing my writing, or if I simply need to find a better way to say things. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  • If individual characters are using repeated expressions which make them unique that is not necessarilly a problem. However, I do tell students not to use the same word within the same sentence or two lines (whichever comes last). Reading out loud prevents this problem. – S. Mitchell Jan 2 '17 at 22:11
  • @S.Mitchell I think when I repeat words like "like, totally," etc. in dialogue it comes off as colloquial, not repetition. My problem is that it translates into the narration as well, most likely because that's how I talk. – RE Lavender Jan 2 '17 at 22:47
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Everyone has their pet phrases and turns of phrase. That in itself does not matter much. What matters is whether you are expressing repetitive or monotonous ideas.

Yes, you can go in and insert synonyms for words you use frequently, but if the real problem is that your ideas are repetitive, that is just lipstick on a pig.

On the other hand, if the ideas are original and not repetitive, it really does not matter if certain words are being used frequently. People are not reading you for your words, but for your idea.

If repetitive words are a symptom or repetitive ideas, then focus on fixing the ideas. If the ideas are fine, don't worry too much about the words. It is better to use the plainest and most natural word for an idea than it is to make your prose purple with needless variation.

This is part of a bigger pattern, by the way. Words are the canary in the coal mine. They are often the first indication that something is wrong structurally. Too many people get hung up on trying to fix the words, but no amount of tinkering with language will fix a structural problem. People would waste a lot less time and effort if they looked for the structural problems first instead of last.

  • On the other hand, applying lipstick to a pig is such a remarkable feat that it certainly deserves some recognition … – can-ned_food Oct 12 '17 at 7:48
  • I disagree, somewhat, with one thing: that readers care for the ideas and not the words. Vis–à–vis, compare the opening of The War of the Worlds with something that expresses the same idea in 20 words. – can-ned_food Oct 12 '17 at 7:50
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I can see several possibilities here:

  1. Don't worry about it. Perhaps your "overuse" of these words is simply part of your style. Or perhaps it isn't overuse at all. Ask a few good readers to read your story and give you feedback.

  2. Make a list of the words you're concerned about. After you finish a first draft, search for each word. Make a conscious decision what to do about it (delete the word, leave the sentence alone, rewrite the sentence to make the word unnecessary). Make notes about how you decide which to retain, which to remove, and which to revise.

  3. Here's an experiment. Take a section of something you've written. Maybe 500–1000 words.

    1. Make a copy of the section. Edit the copy to remove every instance of the trouble words, rewriting as necessary to make the sentences meaningful without the trouble words. When you're done, make notes about the kinds of revising you had to do to eliminate the trouble words.
    2. Make another copy. Edit it to insert even more uses of the trouble words.
    3. Read through the three versions, making notes about your reactions to the different styles.
    4. Rewrite the original, using everything you've learned from these edits and your reactions.
  4. Another experiment. For the next two weeks, when you finish each writing session, search for the trouble words and eliminate them, revising as necessary. After two weeks, go back and restore the ones you really want to restore. Make notes about how you decide which ones to restore and which ones to omit. This tells you about your personal style.

  5. Consider how you could use these words to characterize your characters. What kind of character would overuse "actually" in conversation? What kind of character would overuse "actually" in private thoughts or narration? What other words might a given character overuse?

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You mention that you don't think that your problem words can easily be replaced with synonyms. Maybe not "easily" but I think the exercise of trying to substitute synonyms may aid your understanding if why you are using them. For example, look at your use of the word "just" and determine if you mean "merely" or "solely" or some other phrase. It may be a larger issue, as @Mark Baker suggested, or it may be a need for a more precise use of vocabulary.

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