July 30, 2013

Rules For Writing: Don’t Repeat Words

There is a rule I’ve heard (from authors) that you shouldn’t repeat the same word within the same paragraph (referring to adjectives, adverbs, and verbs), or if it is a word you don’t hear often like “gargantuan” you shouldn’t use it more than once in a whole piece.

I believe this writing rule and I will explain why.

Writers shouldn’t repeat the same word(s) in a single paragraph or in the same scene, because it only shows a writer’s weaknesses.

For example: if you are writing a fight, you will find that you tend to repeat the same sort of action verbs over and over again. There are only so many ways to describe the action, but that’s where you have to get creative, search a thesaurus, or use Google to find alternative words, because recycling the word “slammed” gets old rather quickly. A reader will immediately notice the overuse of such a word, and then the fight scene you wrote won’t flow as well.

Here are other verbs to try for a fight:

Photo by Chrys Fey

There are a lot more than I could think in one sitting so go ahead and use them all!

A fight isn’t the only event that this rule applies to, but any type of event you may be writing (childbirth, a love scene, torture, etc.) If you overuse a word that describes an action in a single scene, you threaten killing it. And no, I am not being a dramatic writer. When you write a word repeatedly, and in close proximity, you literally risk that word from losing its impact and meaning. But more importantly, you put your work in danger of becoming boring and lazy, if all of your action scenes repeat the same verbs.

This is especially true for a powerhouse word. A powerhouse word is a word that you don’t hear every day, or even read in every book. Like: magnanimous, lickerish, bombastic . . . Using these words is great, but since they stand out so much only use them once! And make sure you’re not just using them to have them in your book, but that they have a real purpose.

TIP: Keep a list of words that you can look at, so if you're tempted to overuse a specific word (such as a verb) you can quickly check your list of favorite synonyms to swap it out with. This idea can even be used for alternative words/phrases to begin sentences.

QUESTION: Do you agree or disagree with this rule? Why or why not?


  1. This is so true! And sometimes you can avoid re-using a word by rethinking the way that you describe action. Instead of the subject-verb-object format, you could use a metaphor or a simile to give a sense of the action that's happening, or get creative with structure.

    Great suggestions for alternative fight scene words.

  2. Using a metaphor or simile is a great option! Thank you for mentioning it, Kiersi!

  3. While I was revising my MG novel, I was constantly worried that I'd used a particular word too often. ("glance" seems to be my weakness.) Line after line I'd go and strike it through and switch to another word. The issue of word-overuse has caused a deeper anxiety than expected!

  4. Claudine G.,

    When I was going through my manuscript I was surprised at how often I would use certain words too, especially words that don't need to be there like "just" and "only". We all have our writing anxieties.

    Thank you for your comment!

  5. Chrys's point of view that repeating words when writing is considered lazy and uncreative is a very common misconception of what good writing is. I'm an academic writing teacher and while I agree some repetition can be distracting, generally speaking keyword repetition is actually quite important and can help the reader follow your message by maintaining consistency and cohesion. Like Claudine, many students become very anxious over repeating words but repetition of keywords is actually rather important and helpful rather than boring or lazy.

  6. Thank you for your comment! I agree that there are words that can't be avoided, and should be used in repetition to help the reader understand the story, but I also believe that there are words that shouldn't be repeated in the same scene (specifically action verbs). For example: repeating "punched" while describing a single fight scene can become glaringly obvious. I've noticed this within my own writing, so I try to use different action verbs instead to keep my descriptions fresh and new. Thanks again for your comment!

  7. Great tips but I'd like to pick your brains, or anybody who'd like to contribute, on repeating adjectives within a chapter. I'm working on the 7th and final draft of my 1st novel, which entails, among other aspects, writing the vivid descriptions of my characters and places. This final draft is taking longer than I had anticipated, as, now that the adventure was down on paper, it was literally time to go back to drawing board and sketch out my characters and locations. I can't exactly remember how long I was at it but I managed to build folders on characters bios, maps, building sketches, armor sketches, weapon sketches and floor plans. Now, I've broken out my thesaurus and am writing these new paragraphs into the manuscript. In the case of repeating adjectives within a single chapter when describing characters, is there any advice you could bestow? I'm trying to not repeat an adjective in a chapter but I'm wondering if it's OK to repeat maybe once, if it's not in the same paragraph but at the same time, it's probably a good idea to repeat a word if it's perhaps a prominent feature on the character? "her blazing red hair" or is this just something which each author needs to work out for themselves, depending on style?

    I'd be delighted with any insight 😊
    Sarah The Jaded Creative


    1. Hi, Sarah! Thanks for your comment.

      I think it's perfectly fine to repeat an adjective or verb at least once in a chapter. I've certainly had to do that, especially for a chapter with a lot of action. There's only so many alternatives, and if you end up using the alternatives you like in the span of one chapter, going back to the original adjective or verb is just fine.

      In the case of "her blazing red hair" you could find alternatives, such as fiery, but remember, you don't have to repeat a character's feature much. Readers will remember her hair color. So try not to say too often that her hair is red. That's unnecessary, especially if you're in her POV.

      You are right, though, the frequency of a certain word can be part of the author's style.

      I hope that helps. :)