How to self edit your novel: repetition

Welcome to my series of blogs that help indie authors – like you – self edit your fiction manuscript effectively.

As a professional editor and proofreader, as well as an indie author, I have written these blogs to help you develop the skills and confidence to edit your own novel to a very high standard. When you then go on to secure the services of a freelance editor and/or proofreader before self publishing, you will know that you have already given your novel a great chance of success.

This blog outlines how to self edit five common instances of repetition from your fiction manuscript.

How to self edit your novel: repetition

1. Chapter beginnings and endings

Repetition at the beginning of chapters doesn’t necessarily mean chapters beginning with the same word or phrase. It could also apply to more than one chapter in succession opening in the same way. These ways could include: dialogue, or a monologue, or a flashback, or a description, or a dream sequence. As repetition is a technique meant to reinforce or add a particular effect to writing, repeating patterns without purpose could imply lack of structure. Lack of structure could then lead to plot problems and/or reader disinterest/disengagement. Therefore, ensuring that your chapter beginnings are considered throughout your novel is important.

Repetition at the end of chapters may include cliff hangers, or dialogue tailing off, or a technique shoehorned in as a misguided attempt to make the reader ‘read on’, whether the chapter warrants it or not. Repeating a cliff hanger ending for virtually every chapter could either excite or frustrate your reader, which means a 50% chance of frustration. We all want to write binge-worthy books but some readers also want satisfying chapters! Great stories include ebbs and flows of tension rather than constant cliff hangers or trying-too-hard enigmatic endings.

2. Character actions and descriptions

As authors, we’ve probably all done it – repeated hackneyed character descriptions and/or actions throughout our manuscripts.

Examples:

She nodded. Slowly, she nodded. She stared out of the window and nodded.

He rubbed his jaw. Rubbing his jaw, he realised he needed a shave. He rubbed his stubbled jaw.

Her lips pursed. She pursed her red lips. Her red lips pursed in annoyance.

However, with the entire English language at our disposal, there are much better ways to describe what a character looks like or is doing than repeating the same stock phrases throughout our stories. Check your manuscript for instances of repeated character description/actions carefully, then edit them accordingly.

3. Dialogue tags

Beware of falling into the dialogue tag trap. This is the trap that makes you think you need to vary your dialogue tags because ‘said’ isn’t expressive enough. Consequently, you end up repeating a variety of other ‘creative’ dialogue tags throughout your manuscript.

These may include: smirked, chuckled, chortled, uttered, vocalised etc.

Edit these from your novel immediately! Despite the purpose of this blog being how to self edit the repetition from your manuscript, this is the only instance when it’s okay to repeat ‘said’! This is because ‘said’ is invisible. Its only purpose is to make it clear who is speaking. It does its job perfectly. Therefore, repeating a small range of other dialogue tags is not necessary.

How to punctuate character speech and dialogue in fiction goes into more detail about dialogue tags.

4. Saying the same thing a different way

Readers are clever – they do not need to be told something twice. Avoid saying the same thing a different way when it is not needed.

Example: Quickly, he glanced around. No one was in the room. It was completely empty.

This example says the same thing twice – ‘no one was in the room’ and ‘it was completely empty’. If nobody was in the room, it would be empty. Your readers will understand that without the need for indirect repetition.

Removing the repetition: Quickly he glanced around. The room was empty. (The word ‘completely’ would be redundant repetition too!)

Saying the same thing a different way also applies to repeating obvious synonyms. There’s no need to hammer the point home by using a variety of overused synonyms that aren’t necessary, such as: angry, cross, furious, enraged  and wept, cried, sobbed, wailed (this extends from number 3 above!).

Example: “Not now,” he shouted angrily. He shook with rage; he was too furious to deal with it.

Strong verbs, combined with showing not telling, inform and engage the reader much more effectively than unimaginative repetition.

Removing the repetition: “Not now!” he bellowed, slamming the door behind him.

If the repetition is not being used to reinforce or to add effect, stating something once is enough (especially in the same or consecutive sentences).

5. Using the same techniques over and over again

Certain techniques may get used more than others in fiction. Most writers know the obvious suspects: alliteration, imagery metaphors, onomatopoeia and similes, but using the same techniques over and over again runs the risk of boring or distracting the reader (especially if they say the same thing a different way – as number 4 above!). These are reactions you do not want!

Examples:

She was as cold as ice. (clichéd simile)

Her heart was frozen. (unimaginative metaphor)

So, mix the techniques up a bit. Inject some intertextuality if your story would benefit from it. Pop in some personification to elevate a description. Play around with some wordplay to add more interest.

Example:

A shiver slithered slowly up her spine, squeezing the breath from her body. (alliteration and personification combined)

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A-Z of Storytelling Techniques for Authors is a fantastic resource for investigating different devices to avoid using tired techniques in your writing. Click the image below to get it now!

A-Z of Storytelling Techniques for Authors

Indie author Sacha Black has some more tips for editing repetition in her fantastically funny podcast episode 10 Tips to Improve Your Prose, taken from her brilliant new book The Anatomy of Prose.

If you have enjoyed this blog and need further tips on how to self edit your novel, take a look at:

How to self edit your novel: spelling, punctuation and grammar and How to self edit your novel: clichés and common phrases and/or How to self edit your novel: the three main editing stages.

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