repetition of words


Well, I’ve done it again. I believed I had finished the next book, even found a literary-sounding title for it: The Hedge. Even had a Manhattan to celebrate last night before my husband and I settled in to try to understand The Young Pope. But that’s another story.

This morning I decided to look over the short list of words I had jotted down as I wrote. I’m inclined to use the same word over and over again. (It feels so right in the first draft) and I think this time the word will be “pull” as in “pull up a chair, pull out a hanky, pull up into a driveway.” Not “Pull out a gun,” like my last book.

I bring the 220 perfect pages (I have been revising for a week) to the screen and type “pull” on the Search in Document function. The list that comes forward looks as if it is suffering from a plague, orange spots, fifty or more scattered on, seems like, every page. How many synonyms does “pull” have? I try a few. I can do this. At about the tenth change, I realize I cannot just change all the “pulls” to another word. Each has to be looked at in its verbal environment, individually assessed. Okay. I have time. It’s snowing and icy outside. I have two frozen meals in the fridge.

About, maybe at “pull” # 40, I hit a wrong button or fill in the wrong space or something. All of my “pulls” and any others that still linger in the next hundred pages have been transformed to “takes.” This change might make sense in some instances, does not in most others, and the result is definitely as bad too many “pulls.”

The plague has spread.

Now, four hours later, and not yet finished, I have gotten rid of sixty out of sixty-five “takes.” (It seems that in the original draft, I had overused “take” as well as “pull”.)

The only thing, beside the glass of white wine I’ve finally poured, that makes me feel better about spending an entire day searching for two words is a memory I have of my first novel, Wednesday Club, a story of a counselor and her five counselees, as they all struggle through divorce, abuse, bullying, and really bad Teachers (and that’s only the counselor’s side of the story). For some reason, I did the same search then as I did today, when one word that kept cropping up no matter what was happening on the page. “Smile.”

One hundred and ten times in three hundred pages. Little kids and their counselors smile a lot, if given the chance. I left a lot of “smiles” in the manuscript (what other word fits?), and the book never got published, even by me. But it’s my favorite story. Maybe when the ice and snow melts and I recover from today’s session, I can go out, get a little exercise, get the blood flowing once more, and I’ll look at and love Wednesday Club one more time.


At some point, one must say, “It’s finished.” I have punched the Publish button at Amazon.  Edith going to have to go it on her own from now on.
I’ve edited, re-read line-for-line and had friends point out typos. I’ve done some new formatting, centered the little trees at the beginning of chapters, and consistently double-spaced when the scenes change.
 I’ve researched the large number of anachronisms that snuck into the first drafts.  AIDs in 1974? Bubble tea in the early 90’s? All gone.  Jake’s Crawfish is still in the book. Actually, so is bubble tea, inaccurate but fun to read about. Tarantino has replaced HBO as an incentive for Edith to say a certain uncouth word a few times, after research indicated he didn’t shrink at using the word over one hundred times in an early 1990’s film.
I reviewed the timeline of my story and changed my characters’ ages by two years so that Edith could get through high school before she had to get married, which made her son as little younger than I wanted, but I changed that, too.
The most shocking changes I had to make were to words that over the almost- three hundred pages of the book I had repeated so often I wondered if a cog were loose  somewhere in my brain. When I noticed a repetition of the word “swallow,” (several of my characters like their wine), I typed it into the “Search in Document” space on the Word page.  A side column appeared and told me that I had used the word thirty-some times, once or twice a chapter.  Not always drinking.  Edith swallowed her words; the noise in the room swallowed her; she couldn’t swallow a story being told her, a fog swallowed the neighborhood.  Of course, a certain amount of wine and alcohol also got swallowed.  I asked for synonyms from my wordy husband:  “gulped, sipped, filled his mouth, drained,” he advised.  “And maybe you should change the whole sentence to some other action, ‘like closed his eyes.’” I knew I had used that phrase pretty often too.  It took me a day to get down to about ten irreplaceable swallows. 
Several other verbs made themselves known for the same reason. “Touch,” for one; “turned,” for another. Then I was relieved to realize this writing flaw was not senility–related. I recalled that in my first unpublished novel, a teenager shrugged at least twice in each chapter and I could come up with no other description of that action. And the little grade school kids in the same book smiled so often their cheeks quivered all day. Same kind of problem in the next two novels.
I apparently have some sort of repetition tic that emerges when I’m at my computer trying to make a story go into words.
I wonder if Annie Dillard or Alice Munro or Cheryl Strayed spend much time with the “Search in Document” space.  Or, perhaps they hire a good editor, like all of the books on writing advise us would-be authors.  I will too, maybe, on the next story, now that I’m finished with Edith.

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