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I have been told before that when describing things in writing I should use different words, and not to repeat myself so it doesn't become redundant, but sometimes there are no other words that work as well. For example, I've written things before like this:

The trio had come to a halt in front of a large, sleek building. It appeared to be three stories tall with a bridge lined with windows stretching between the two sections. The walls were smooth and dark. The commander led them through a pair of sleek doors and up the stairs to a room with about a half a dozen people in it.

And have been told that I needed to replace sleek with something else.

Now I don't disagree with that, but is this true in every case? Is it wrong to use the same word multiple times within a few sentences?

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    Yes, I said yes, it is, yes. – Ed Plunkett Oct 26 '17 at 18:26
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    @EdPlunkett. You make a terrific point in adding this as an example. I agree with you because it indeed is very repetitive and can lose a reader very quickly. – Aspen the Artist and Author Oct 26 '17 at 20:16
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    Aside: It's not clear at all what you mean by the "two sections" with a bridge between them. Either there's two buildings involved or the building splits in some interesting way. (For an example of how it could split, perhaps it's a single building on the first floor and then has separate towers protruding upwards for the upper floors.) This might be clearer with more context; if so, you can ignore me. – jpmc26 Oct 26 '17 at 23:17
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    "Sleek" describes a quality, not the physical structure. Yes, it means "smooth", but in the sense of "glossy" or "slippery". It's a word which typically would be used to describe someone's slicked-back hair, or a well-groomed dog. To use this for a building suggests it's some kind of glossy corporate architecture. For doors though - how would that be relevant? Your problem isn't just repetition, it's poor choice of words. – Graham Oct 27 '17 at 9:28
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    Also on the passage you quote. You've got very short sentences. Each only adds a little. It's very disjointed. There are reasons to do this. For instance, it can add drive to an action sequence. But this is a simple description of a building. This isn't one of those times. I hope I've made the point. :) – Graham Oct 27 '17 at 9:31

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I think it weakens the prose, unless it is clearly intentional ("he had a big head, big teeth, a big nose, a big attitude.")

In your example, "sleek" is not a very precise description, to me. The very fact that you apply it to both a building and a door suggests that lack of precision. You can actually replace both of them with actual description of what makes them "sleek".

Those descriptions would likely be different for a building and a door. It isn't always about word choice, but sometimes about the choice to use one word instead of several, when several would convey the idea better. What makes doors "sleek"? Are they smooth and featureless? Is their fit so precise that they join to the building and each other seamlessly? Do they have hidden hinges so they almost appear to not be doors at all? Are they rounded instead of rectangular? Do they have recessed handles?

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    A good case of "show, don't tell". – chrylis -on strike- Oct 26 '17 at 19:58
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    Maybe the building is "on sleek." – Aaron Hall Oct 26 '17 at 20:55
  • Also, in this kind of passage, we don't actually need to know what the doors were like: it's almost certainly irrelevant to the story. The adjective here serves the same function as background music in a film: it's there to create the right atmosphere. What do you want us to feel as we read it? That the situation was frightening? That the building was opulent? Or that there was something sinister about it? "Sleek" does none of these things. – Michael Kay Oct 28 '17 at 21:52
  • @MichaelKay I think the OP is intending to suggest a new and modern streamlined building with expensive fittings, one that seems a work of art, as opposed to an anonymous "box full of boxes" office building. If so, the point of such buildings is conspicuous consumption to convey wealth and power, which would apply to any residents of such a building. I think the word was repeated because the first use did not seem enough. Really that should be a clue to a writer, if no single word can be found that does the job, perhaps a paragraph would do. Readers are not in a terrible hurry! – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Oct 28 '17 at 22:53
  • I see that the Urban Dictionary gives a usage of "sleek" meaning "nice or good". If the word has degenerated to that, then it's definitely best avoided! – Michael Kay Oct 29 '17 at 9:32
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You can use the right word repeatedly in the course of several sentences as long as it is the right word in each case. There was a writing school fashion a while back for using as much vocabulary as possible, but this is generally regarded as bad technique today. (In some ways it gets confused with a schoolroom exercise in which children are encouraged to use new words as a way to expand their vocabulary. But what works for a 8 year old is not work for grownups.

However, the problem you have here is that "sleek" is the wrong word both times you use it. Using the wrong word twice in a row, of course, calls particular attention to it.

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Not necessarily

It completely depends on your writing style and on how often you are doing this. There is nothing inherently wrong in using the same word twice in a couple of sentences. Sometimes it can even be a good thing to emphasize something that is important.

Just try not to use the same word in every sentence. If you use the same word it becomes repetitive. The same word can become boring. It shows that you can only use the same word in this context. You would have to find a new way so that you are not using the same word all the time. Try to vary instead of using the same word.

Now, that was deliberately too much. As long as it's not as extreme as my example above there is nothing wrong and I disagree that you have to find another word in your example. Maybe it's necessary, maybe not - I would have to read a couple pages to say more about your writing style and whether you need to replace the word.

What you have been told is a rule of thumb and you should treat it as such. If you can you should use different words - but don't get caught up in this stuff and focus on telling your story. You can worry about such small details later when copy-editing your text.

  • I love using repetition to drive a point, as you mention doing here. Doing so requires that (1) I do not use repetition otherwise, and (2) that I only use it to drive a point exceedingly infrequently. I don't believe the repeated use of 'sleek' drives a point, above. – DPT Oct 26 '17 at 20:25
  • @DPT Using it infrequently is not necessary. You could use this technique every sentence, and it would turn out fine (rather like an epic poem, actually). The important thing is that it be clearly intentional. – Brilliand Oct 26 '17 at 21:55
  • @Brilliand An excellent point. But! If one's genre is not epic poetry, then perhaps every sentence would be too frequent! – DPT Oct 27 '17 at 15:42
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Anything repeated draws attention to itself, and the more unusual something is, the more likely we are to notice it being repeated. You can repeat utilitarian words like "the" all day long without anyone noticing or caring, but a distinctive description like "sleek" is going to be noticed if repeated.

English is a rich language, and when you use a very specific word twice for two things that are not noticeably like each other, it suggests you are lazy, careless, or not in full command of the details of your own work.

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It isn't wrong; it just generally sounds bad. (Try reading it out loud.) The exception to this rule is if you are repeating a word or phrase for effect — e.g. "We don't want sympathy. We don't want pity. We don't want apologies."

As a general rule, except for articles and other short words, you should generally avoid repeating a word within a paragraph, and definitely within the same sentence, when writing fiction.

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In situations like this, my instinct is always to completely rephrase the entire section (whether that's just a sentence, a paragraph or even more).

If you want to emphasize that both the building and the doors to it were sleek, you could write something like:

The building loomed large in front of the trio. Everything about it was sleek: the black doors, the smooth walls, even the commander that came to greet them. The bridge that connected the two sections was particularly impressive. They were led up the stairs to a room containing half a dozen people.

There are dozens of different ways to say the same sentence, so if the one I'm using doesn't sound right, I will go back to formula and try to find a different way to phrase exactly what it is I'm trying to communicate to the reader.

This is usually easier in editing. When you return to a section after some time has passed and read it for the first time, you will usually be able to tell if it doesn't sound quite right.

For a first draft, using the same word to describe everything so that you know what it is that you're trying to say is fine. Getting caught up with something as minor as repeating a word within a certain body of writing will cause you to get hung up on looking for synonyms, and you will become hyper-aware of repeating yourself.

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The opposite danger of course is to use several different words to describe the same object, often out of fear that using the same word will be boring or crude. H. W. Fowler, in an ironic mood, called this "elegant variation" The Wikipedia article includes this illustration.

"In The King's English (1906), Fowler gives as an example this passage from The Times: The Emperor received yesterday and to-day General Baron von Beck ... It may therefore be assumed with some confidence that the terms of a feasible solution are maturing themselves in His Majesty's mind and may form the basis of further negotiations with Hungarian party leaders when the Monarch goes again to Budapest. Fowler objected to the passage because The Emperor, His Majesty, and the Monarch all refer to the same person: "The effect," he pointed out in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (first edition, p. 131, col. 2), "is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude disappointedly that it has none."

Repetition is acceptable, and sometimes necessary, in legal or technical documents, or for dramatic effect, as noted by others. When in doubt, I recommend crossing the sentence out and trying again a few days later.

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I'm a web dev, not a "writer", so feel free to take my advice with a grain of salt.

Besides the word "sleek", you use "the" to begin three out of 4 sentences in your example. This is also considered bad form and something to be avoided as much as possible.

Sometimes simply changing the word order or adding something small, but useful, can help.

Our trio had come to a halt in front of a large, sleek building. It appeared to be three stories tall with a bridge lined with windows stretching between the two sections. All the walls were smooth and dark. The commander led them through a pair of sleek doors and up the stairs to a room with about a half a dozen people in it.

I didn't change anything too drastic here, but I made it sound a little less like a technical document. I even left in one of the "the"s, since I wasn't sure who the commander referenced was. I assumed that the trio was of the main characters. I also made this paragraph start with all "I"s, with some others sprinkled around, to help show how annoying it can be.

Ok, now for the rewrite of that paragraph to correct myself:

While I didn't change anything too drastic here, it sounds a little less like a technical document. One of the "the"s was left in, since I wasn't sure who the commander referenced was. The trio was assumed to be the main characters. Also, this paragraph starts with all "I"s, with some others sprinkled around, to help show how annoying it can be.

The last sentence is now incorrect, but the paragraph, as a whole, sounds much better. And, yes, I do this in all my writing. Emails, technical documents, and SE answers included. In fact, I wasn't going to do the rewrite, but my OCD required me to make the changes. After a few minutes of consideration, I compromised between giving a bad example and correcting the issues.

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Wrong? Not really.

It isn't dynamic, which should be a a goal in all language, so yes, I think you SHOULD change it.

In addition, several of your sentences start with the word "the," so that should also be addressed.

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It's not 'wrong' but if you do do it then it needs to be a deliberate decision for emphasis.

In this particular case I would question the use of the world 'sleek'at all as it's not really an adjective that I particularity associate with architecture and I struggle to visualise what it is attempting to convey. I can imagine what a sleek car looks like but not so much a sleek door.

You also need to take care that adjectives and adverbs are the curse of fantasy writing, there is a big trap in imagining a scene in a cinematic sense and then describing what you imagine which can get really clunky, really quickly (see what I did there ?).

Even with 3rd person narration it is usually better to describe scenes from the perspective of a character and convey their impressions of it eh what details did they notice first, how did it make them feel, what does it remind them of ?

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There was little redundancy in using "sleek" in your writing. Unless you drew attention to the word it was not noticed. Using a word over and over with option to do otherwise is wise. Perhaps had it been used once more it may have become too noticeable....who cares.

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