Writing Techniques: Duplication

One of the most critical writing techniques you can develop is the ability to avoid duplication.  This is one of those things where it may not be obvious until someone points it out, after which it seems like the simplest thing in the world.  I’ve seen enough writing samples, and read enough books, to know this relatively simple concept is often not known or not followed.

So, what do I mean by duplication?  It’s fairly straightforward; it’s when a word is used in too close proximity to itself.   It can be in the paragraph above, in adjacent sentences, or even when the first word in a paragraph is used too many times in a row.

Solution

Avoiding this mistake is simple.  First you have to see it happening, then you have to get out the thesaurus.  There’s no shame in using a thesaurus as a crutch.  The more you use it, the better you’ll get at thinking of your own variations.  Sometimes, there are words that just don’t have suitable alternatives.  You might have to restructure your paragraph to avoid using that word again.  It requires a little extra work, but the results pay dividends.

Another time you see this is when you have a conversation with more than two people, and the author uses “said” over and over again.  Jane said, Joe said, Bob said, Jane said, Bob said.  It’s important that the reader knows who is talking so the name has to be referenced, but there are a million alternatives to using said!  Besides the synonyms, you can use physical actions instead of “said” to denote who is talking.  Joe shook his head, Bob shrugged, Jane grinned, etc.

A similar instance is when you have people shouting or whispering to each other.  This is even harder because there are fewer synonyms for these extremes.  I find it’s easiest to put more reliance on physical actions during the shouting to show who is talking and throw in the occasional “he shouted” just to remind people this is at high volume.

Exceptions

Like for any rule, there are exceptions.  Using the same word repeatedly can bring emphasis or comedic relief, but like all “break the rules for effect” tricks, it’s best used sparingly.  Personally, I probably wouldn’t use it more than a few times in a whole book.

I should emphasize that this is really only applicable to fiction writing.  Obviously for technical material, repeated use of the exactly precise word is not only expected, it is the correct method.  This can be used in creative writing when you have a technically-minded character, or when creating excerpts of technical material.

Writing is one of the most diverse methods of expression there is.  Keep it varied and avoid using duplication.