Running across a word or phrase more than once in a sentence or paragraph can be jarring. Those who notice suddenly become aware they’re reading a book instead of remaining immersed in your narrative. These readers may wonder if there’s some significance to the word or phrase appearing a second time, question your word choice, or just plain find your prose irritating.
Let’s examine this passage from The Abominable by Dan Simmons:
We studied the few snowfields around Camp I, attempting to find strange boot prints—or, I admitted only to myself, the gigantic footstep imprints of a yeti—but other than the total absence of the few Sherpas who’d been permanently stationed there, there was nothing unusual to see at our first camp above Base Camp. I admit that after days and nights at real altitude, the air at 17,800 feet felt thick enough to swim in.The Abominable, pg. 461
Did you catch the repeats? There are four repeated words or phrases that create awkward moments in the text. The first is “admit.” Mr. Simmons uses the phrase “admit to myself” to drive home that the narrator was embarrassed he’d kept an eye out for yeti tracks. A couple lines later the narrator again “admit(s)” something about the air. This repetition sounds strange to our ears because this is not how people speak. It’s sometimes how authors write, in a stream-of-consciousness flow, not a problem as long as you clean it up in an editing pass.
The second repeated word is “camp,” where the narrator says, “our first camp above Base Camp.” When caught in a situation like this it’s sometimes possible to delete the second word, as in “the next medal above bronze” instead of “the next medal above the bronze medal.” In this case, deleting the second camp would sound a little awkward (“our first camp above Base”). Sometimes we can replace one of the words with a synonym but there aren’t any good alternatives here. Since the passage has already introduced Camp I the narrator could simply say, “at this first stop above Base Camp.”
Next is the repeated phrase “the few”: “We studied the few snowfields …. Other than the total absence of the few Sherpas ….” When writing it’s a good idea to move fast, to get your thoughts on the paper without worrying about perfect prose. Jotting down “a few” and moving on is better than stopping to debate possible different phrasings. That refinement can come during an editing pass.
The final repeated word is “there.” In the passage the narrator says, “… permanently stationed there, there was nothing unusual ….” Back-to-back helper words like this always sound awkward (similar to repeated “hads” as in “if she had had the chance ….”).
After these edits the revised passage reads:
We studied the few snowfields around Camp I, searching for strange boot prints (or, I admitted only to myself, the gigantic footsteps of a yeti). Other than the total absence of the Sherpas permanently stationed there, nothing unusual awaited us at this first stop above Base Camp. I did find that after days and nights at real altitude, the air at 17,800 feet felt thick enough to swim in.
Read both passages aloud (or have your computer do it). Do you hear the difference? The edited version flows much better. Remain on the lookout for repeated words during your editing passes. A polished manuscript will keep your readers immersed in your text rather than stumbling over it.