Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.
I believe “word rep.” is the comment I write most frequently on student papers. That’s because word repetition is a telltale-maybe the telltale-sign of awkward, non-mindful writing, whether by students or anyone else. The writer has presumably gotten the pertinent information onto the screen, but has not taken the time to read the sentence to herself, silently or out loud. If she did, that word rep. would sound like fingernails on the blackboard. Consequently, “listening” to your sentences with the sensitivity to pick up word repetition is a strong first step to grappling with the problem. (There are a lot of other benefits to reading your stuff out loud-in fact, it’s my number-one writing tip.)
2. Choose Your Battles
There are some nuances to my unified theory of word repetition, which boil down to: the more common the word, the more leeway you have in repeating it, and vice versa.
In the previous sentence, I repeated “to,” “word,” “more,” and “the” (twice, for a total of three times). That is not ideal, but it’s okay; readers are not likely to notice. On the other hand, I know I would have to wait at least a few more pages (if this were a multi-page article) before reusing the expressions “vice versa” and “boils down to.” Words like “repetition” and “common” would be somewhere in between. No matter how long the article is, I would not be able to able to use the notion of “unified theory” again.
3. The Pronoun Is Your Friend
I once had a student submit something very close to the following in an assignment: “Johnson is the youngest representative in the legislature. When he was twenty-three, Johnson defeated the Republican incumbent.”
For some reason, a lot of people tend to needlessly repeat proper names, forgetting that they have at their disposal the very useful pronouns “he” and “she.” They have the added value of being in the category of common words, mentioned above, that can be repeated with near impunity. So the passage above could become:
“Johnson is the youngest representative in the legislature. At the age of twenty-three, he defeated the Republican incumbent.”
4. Just Say No to Elegant Variation
H.W. Fowler, author of the great early twentieth-century book Modern English Usage, coined the term “elegant variation” (which I’ll call EV) to refer a synonym, near synonym, or invented synonym used for the express purpose of avoiding word repetition. In Fowler’s view, and mine, elegant variation is not a good thing. Your efforts to avoid repetition are too clumsy and obvious. Take a look at two examples (EV in parenthesis):
“Hartnell read the newspaper. When he was finished with (the periodical), he got up and went outside.”
“Spence hit a home run in the second inning, his fifth (circuit clout) of the campaign.”
In both cases, as is often true, the simplest solution is just to take out the EV (along with the word “with” in the first example). Incidentally, perceptive readers may have noticed that the second passage contains another EV: “the campaign.” Mediocre sportswriters are elegant variers to the bone, and they will reflexively seek to avid a common word, even if they haven’t used it yet! However, “season” is better than “campaign.”
5. Make Word Rep. Work for You
Let’s go back to something I wrote earlier:
“The more common the word, the more leeway you have in repeating it.” The repetition of “more” is okay and maybe even good—not only because it’s a common word, but because the repetition is deliberate, and helps create a strong rhythm. (The same is true of “because” and “repetition” in the sentence I just wrote.)
The key is using repetition deliberately, consciously, and strategically. If you don’t think it can be effective, imagine if Shakespeare had had Macbeth say: “Tomorrow, and the next day, and the one after that, creeps in this petty pace from one twenty-four-hour period to another.”