Writing Tip: Repetitive Word Choice

I recently proofread a soon-to-be-published memoir that is translated from the French, and unfortunately, the translator’s word choice is so poor that it inspired this “what not to do” article. Word choice can be a positive or negative quality in writing for many reasons. In this case, the writer’s sin is the repetitious use of words and phrases. Over. And over. And over. Most writers who do this don’t realize they’re doing it, and it’s one of the best reasons to read your work out loud-and one of the easiest writing pitfalls to fix through careful editing.

For example, today I came across the following sentence:

“In reality, this was very unrealistic. “

I know what you’re thinking: “reality” and “unrealistic” aren’t the same word. But repetitive word choice isn’t always about the exact same word or phrase being overused; different forms of a word count, too. First, when in the same sentence or paragraph, they can be a red flag of redundancy. Would the meaning of the above sentence be any different if we cut “in reality”? Nope. You can’t claim an idea is unrealistic if you haven’t thought about it in terms of reality.

Also, potential for further depth and nuance can be lost if you reuse favorite words and phrases at the expense of variation. If we replace “in reality” with a more specific word or phrase, the sentence becomes much more effective and meaningful. For example:

“Given what had just happened in the Middle East, this was very unrealistic. “

Or:

“Outside of my daydreams, this was very unrealistic. “

Sometimes varying word choice is even more basic: If you reread a paragraph in your fiction and find that you’ve used the word “couple” three times, drag out your thesaurus. Try “duo” or “pair” or “lovers. ” Keep in mind that while words may be listed as synonyms, each has its own connotations, and the strongest writers take care to choose the word that best conveys their intended meaning and fits the tone or mood of their writing. That goes for every word in every sentence, of course.

In short, word choice is an easy realm in which to get lazy or sloppy, but it’s one of the most important aspects of good writing, if not the most important. Choose wisely and with variety, my writer friends.

Lisa Silverman is a freelance book editor and works in the copyediting department at one of New York’s most prestigious literary publishing houses. She has also worked as a ghostwriter and a literary agent representing both book authors and screenwriters. She founded BeYourOwnEditor.com in order to provide writers with free advice on both writing and the publishing business.