First of all: English is not my first language so sorry for the spelling/grammar.

Most of my previous published writing has been for comic books. Something I have noticed as my wordcount grows now when I'm writing an intended 80k+ words novel (in first person perspective, present tense,) is that I often get stuck because it feels like I have written the same things already. Used the same similes and so on. I notice this especially when describing action and movement. Then I can't help myself and do the common ctrl+f and "oh, thats right. I used that certain phrase 8 times in the span of 65k words. So I better change all of them or don't use that phrase."

Which leads to me becoming trapped by my own words. I'm sure I'm not alone in this experience and would love some suggestions on how to combat it. Except for the obvious things like "don't ctrl+f".

In the end it is not the actual amount of repeats that are the problem. It is that I'm unable to continue because it feels like I used every word in my bank. Which is just silly.

3 Answers 3


Don't worry about word-level problems in drafting

As the word count grows, you say, so I am going to assume this is your first draft.

Don't worry about details on this level when writing the first draft. YES! Don't be F-ing ctrl-F-ing when drafting! ;)

Actually, don't worry about anything else than writing the draft. The first draft is a pilot for your final story, a beta, or even a gamma. Maybe it's one enormous experiment in brainstorming? Whatever it is, it's not the final draft. The first draft is never the final draft.

At this stage, maybe all you'll get is a beginning feel for your characters and their voices. Maybe you'll actually have a solid story when it comes to structure and plot, but not so much more.

Don't be surprised if you need to send a bunch of your characters to voice training camp once editing starts... not to mention teaching them to stop nodding all over the place, or mumbling or smiling or laughing once in every chapter... Or obsessing about each other's eyes... Ack!

Finish writing your first draft, then start the editing work.

Worry about favorite phrases late in the editing process

Once you start editing, there will be far larger things to deal with long before you get to any word usage problems.

Below is an approximate priority list (based on James Scott Bell's "Revision and Self-Editing for Publication" with adjustments from a handful of other sources). The most important actions come first and the least important last.

  1. The overall impression of the story; can it be molded into something that works?
  2. Characters, their arcs, likability, etc. Is your protagonist worth following for a whole book?
  3. The structure, acts, subplots, the beginning, middle, and end
  4. Scenes, paragraphs, and sentences; perspective, dialog, showing and telling, character voices and style, settings, descriptions
  5. Details on the word-to-word level, e.g. passive-active, power words, adverb and adjective removals... and also, finally, looking into repeated words and favorite expressions

As you work your way from 1 to 5 in this list things will get cut, scenes, characters even whole subplots.

It's easier to cut things if you haven't spent hours polishing them.

Also going down the list, words will be changed and a lot of repetitions may be removed.

For instance, fixing character voices and problems with showing and telling will introduce a larger variety in word usage and remove a lot of words related to telling.

If you use deep perspective, you have another source for word removals:

  • He thought the house was too warm → The house was too warm
  • She thought she saw the shadow moving → Was the shadow moving?

The same goes for dealing with adverbs and adjectives, consider for instance:

  • A small house → a cottage
  • A large house → a mansion
  • An extremely tall house → a skyscraper

Three fewer usages of "house", just there... You get the gist...

Brainstorm, and make lists

You'll still have repetitions, though. But likely far fewer than when editing began.

You can solve this by brainstorming lists.

Create a list of ten things to use instead of that expression that keeps coming up. You may get stuck at three, push through to ten anyway, be crazy, obnoxious, silly... then let it simmer for a while before you reject it, maybe there's a golden nugget in there anyway?

Having problems describing a place? Can you visit it, or someplace similar? Maybe you can't visit your Elf-character's magical forest but you may be able to visit a real forest...

Even though online images and videos won't give you anything but visual and sound, the Internet can also be a source for variety in descriptions.

Finally, as mentioned in other answers, don't forget that a few characters may be nagging repeaters... You might need outside help from beta readers or editors to determine if it works or not.


Word Searching:

Your problem is not imagination. My editor pointed out to me in my first novel just how many times I just used just just so. And that's just one word. English is a rich and powerful media for writing because it contains so much content that there are a thousand ways to say almost anything. So much so, it's overwhelming. If it isn't your native language, you want to be able to say something, and once you can say it, you want that to be how it's said. But is sheer number of ways English can be used is a bit too much.

I'd love to say there is a magical solution to your issue. Ctrl F is actually not a bad start (actually was actually another problem word for me). Because of the way English is, I'd say you need to go phrase hunting.

The real solution is to read a lot of English stuff, with an eye to the language. Don't limit it to one type of writing, and especially not one author. Look for the clever turns of phrase and unique ways they use the language, and steal semi-shamelessly. Older writing isn't bad either as a source.

You can also try to translate phrases from your own language into English. English got to be the way it is by absorbing everything around it like a sponge, and that process continues. Contribute to the bloat of the English language and add your own material! On the plus side, if you add to English, those phrases will be uniquely you and very stylish. Test drive those phrases, though, to be sure English speakers get them.

Finally, get a good editor. They're amazing, and just might justly add to the just cause of you just using just just a little bit less.

  • You can make use of repetitions - own up to them and make them part of your characters and story.
  • You can avoid the repetitious phrases by avoiding the scenes or actions that cause the dialog or narrative to repeat.

Are you repetitious, or are your characters repetitious?

You might have a somewhat simple minded character who repeats the same phrases because they have a limited vocabulary, or limited world view.

On the other hand, maybe your characters must use the same phrase often.

There's only so many ways the commander of a ship can give the order "full speed ahead." The phrasing is fixed so that all the crew members know exactly what to when the order is given.

If your character is simple and repeats himself, well, maybe that's as it should be. The character would get on other characters' nerves, provoking irritated reactions - or not. Maybe your other characters are really chill and don't get bent out of shape over little things. Maybe your other characters recognize the steadfast, stoic strength of your simple minded character.

If you have certain phrases that are often repeated, maybe the problem isn't the phrases. Maybe the problem is repeating the actions associated with the words.

It might be interesting (or even necessary) to have a full description of the undocking procedures followed when your starship departs from a spacestation. It certainly won't be interesting to your readers if you repeat that scene every time the ship undocks. If you try that, and try to vary the words every time, you'll go nuts - and cheese off your readers.

Once through the full procedure (if needed,) then sort of gloss over it or ignore it in other parts of the story.

Then again, the repetitiousness might be the very thing you need.

Once you've given the reader a complete run down of the undocking procedures, you might make use of it to provide a time line for some other action that happens to occur while the ship is undocking. Say you have a couple of characters involved in sabotaging the ship while it is leaving port. You sort of have to tell the story of each character separately. By interleaving the known parts of the undocking procedure in the narative of each character, you can help the reader understand how the actions of the two characters are synchronized.

The first chapter of David Drake's Rolling Hot makes use of the syncronization trick, though in a slightly different way.

The first chapter describes an attack on a military base that wasn't expected to be attacked - it was far behind the battle lines.

There is a reporter interviewing a mercenary captain on base. There is a photographer with the reporter. Each time the photographer makes a picture, there's a sort of sound effect in the narrative. That first scene shows the attack from the point of view of the mercenary captain. There is also mention of an alarm ringing as the attack gets under way.

The point of view switches to a maintenance crew working on a tank. They are doing their thing, with a bit of background description so that you know what is going on. This is synchronized to the captain's story through the ringing of the alarm. This point of view runs several pages while the maintenance crew tries to get the tank operational so they can fight back. This scene ends with the sound of a different tank firing its main gun at the attacking forces.

Next is a section from the point of view of the reporter. This is synchronized to the first scene by the actions of the mercenary captain. She dives for cover, and the point of view switches to the reporter's reaction to her ducking.

The next few moments show things from the point of view of the reporter. The end of the scene is the reporter following a soldier rather than trying to hide by a tank. As he goes off in another direction, a shell fired from the attackers hits next to the tank where he had planned to take cover - if he hadn't followed the other fellow, he'd have been killed. The sound of this shell impact is also described in the maintenance crew section.

The last section is the tank commander. His story starts a bit further back, then is synchronized to the rest of the story by a repeat of the camera sound effects from the interview and the alarm bell. It ends with the cannon shot that ties back to the maintenance crew.

This chapter uses exclusively synchronization with current events, but the same idea applies if you've shown a complete sequence and then repeat it later as some new action is going on. The synchronization with a known sequence gives the reader a sense of how long things take, and can help the reader understand how actions taken by separated characters mesh.

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