Being a Better Writer: Said and Other Repetitive Words

Today’s post is going to be a shorter one,  as I still have more near-final proofreading to get done by tomorrow on Unusual Events, and I need to get to work on that to make sure I reach the January 19th upload date (after which you’ll be able to pre-order it, huzzah!).

Now, this post was inspired by something I read over the weekend, a blog by another author that crystallized and reacted with a lot of what I’ve noticed both here and on other writing sites among novice writers. Basically, that there’s a trend going around right now among younger English students (particularly those freshly from or in high school, where this idea has taken root with the teaching administration) that use of certain words, especially those that suffer repeated use in the same paragraph, should be avoided.

Right, some of you are probably thinking “Well, yes. You should avoid repeating yourself, right?” Well, yes and no, and I think some confusion between the two may be where part this problem is arising. So let’s take a look at that.

You see, there are two things to consider here. The first is the more familiar, standard rule that we’re all familiar with: you should avoid having repetitious phrasing, sentences, or words in your prose.

This is actually more straightforward than it sounds. What it means is that we should avoid writing something like the following if at all possible:

Angela hit the road hard as she stumbled, her hands skidding across the road’s surface. The road’s rough surface dug into her palms as she hit, peeling back skin, and she let out a cry of pain. Then her knees hit, the road digging into the fabric of her jeans and skinning her legs.

Okay, so there are actually two failings of repetition within this example. We have repeated usages of the same word. There are four instances of the word “road” in three sentences. Two instances of “road’s surface” (discounting rough, which is a modifier). Three instances of hit. Etc. So we have the reader reading the same words or phrases multiple times in a single paragraph.

There is also repetition in what’s occurring, the actual events of the paragraph. Angela falls in the first sentence … but what follows is a continuous reinforcement of that fall, each time adding some new details, but reminding the reader again and again that Angela has fallen and hit a road.

Neither of these are what you want to aim for. The paragraph above is actually pretty bland as a result of the two instances of repetition. As a result, it’s not going to be much fun for your reader.

We don’t want that.

Now, we’re going to ignore the second issue at the moment, since it’s not quite our topic of discussion today. All I’m going to say on that one is that you don’t want to be continuously reminding reader’s of what’s happening in your story: You should trust in the reader’s ability to carry most of the details with them. This is a balancing act as you get further and further on, and you’ll likely have to find a comfortable middle ground, but most of the time, as a general rule, you don’t need to constantly remind your readers of everything.

Now, moving back to the topic at hand and looking at those repetitive words. This is a prose problem. The issue is that reading the same word over and over again can become dull.

So then, what does that make the solution? Dragging out the thesaurus and looking for more complex, sophisticated-sounding alternatives?

No. And that’s where we start to run into the problem that gave rise to this post in the first place.

See, some have now started to argue not just that repetition is bad, but that all repetition should be done away with. Every bit of it. If a word repeats more than once in the same paragraph, or even nearby paragraphs, something has been done wrong.

This is not correct. There is a line between overuse of a particular word and cutting all instances words being used more than once. Going back to our earlier example, for instance. What happens if we just edit out some of the repetition?

Angela hit the road hard as she stumbled, her hands skidding across the rough surface. The asphalt dug into her palms, peeling back skin, and she let out a cry of pain. Then her knees hit, the road digging into the fabric of her jeans and skinning her legs.

That actually reads a little better, doesn’t it? We still have two instances of road, but only one of “rough.” In addition, we’ve had to rearrange a sentence to get rid of the second initial instance of “road” but still keep the context, and the end result flows better. The last sentence, as a result, really didn’t need much of a change. And with that change, the third use is less grievous, and flows better in relation to the first sentence.

Even the repetition of events is lessened. While the first restated that Angela was falling and hitting the road, the rewrite is more keyed towards a blow-by-blow of what’s happening.

Is it perfect? No, I’d still rewrite a few things. But it’s a good example, especially when we compare this to the “remove filler/repetitive words” version:

Angela hit the road hard as she stumbled, her hands skidding across the path’s surface. The causeway’s rough crust dug into her palms as she impacted it, peeling back skin, and she let out a cry of pain. Then her knees collided, the street digging into the fabric of her jeans and skinning her legs.

That’s … far from desirable, actually. In fact, I’d argue that with the added ambiguity brought about by calling the road no less than four different words, we’ve made the paragraph even less clear. Straight out replacing our repetitious words with counterparts has actually dissolved the solidity of the situation being described … and that’s something that hurts our goal, not helps it.

Additionally, it wasn’t needed. As we showed in the above example, we can leave the paragraph with two instances of “road” just fine. Cutting out all repetitive words is not the best idea.

When you’re writing or editing something, you’ll often come across cases where you’ve used the same word twice in close succession. Sometimes, you’ll want to change one of them. But sometimes, doing so would result in a more needlessly complex paragraph, one that isn’t as clear to the reader. Which ultimately, defeats the purpose of the change in the first place!

Does this mean you should never look at cases of repetition? No, you should. Check them all. Some of them you will change. Some of them you will not. The deciding factor should be in looking at what it takes away or adds to the reader’s experience. Is it making things clearer, or more obtuse? Our goal should be (barring some exceptions to the rule that are less common) to make things clearer.

It’s okay to have a word show up twice in the same paragraph. Even three times, sometimes. There are instances where it is your best option. Not only should we remember this as writers, but also as readers. Don’t look down on an author for using the word “road” twice in the same sentence. I’ve seen readers do this, complaining that a writer was sub-par because they occasionally used the same word in sequence. Such a thing is not always bad.

Now then, with that out of the way, on to the second part of today’s topic, the “said.” Don’t worry, I’m not mixing and matching here, we’re still talking about repetitive word choice.

Why talk about “said,” then? Well, because sometimes repetitive word usage is okay. Particularly with filler words such as “said.”

See, there’s that trend I mentioned earlier about getting rid of all repetitive words? That trend actually includes the word “said.” Yes, that’s right, there is a whole group of high and middle school English teachers pushing students to never actually use the word “said,” or other similar “filler words” like “and.” Worse, they subscribe to the thesaurus version of replacement. One “guide” for this concept actually suggests consistent, rapid use of more “interesting” words such as cackled, crowed, drawled, laughed, etc.

I can sum this one up very simply.

NO.

Look, there are filler words in English, but they exist for a reason. “Said” is a word used to identify what person said something. It’s a small, unobtrusive dialogue tag. The goal is merely to connect a speaker with a sentence. Hence why dialog between two individuals can often drop it for long periods at a time: we already know the two parties, and combined with paragraph breaks for new speakers, we can generally keep track of who is saying what.

But there are other rules of writing to bear in mind. One of them is that the dialogue itself, combined with a character’s actions, should be what drives our perspective of the speech. If you have to say “he cackled” or “she drawled,” you’re doing something wrong. Such actions should be already conveyed by character action and the tone/style of their words, not by a very tell modifier at the end of the sentence. Worse, when used at the end of every spoken line, you quite rapidly end up with a bipolar conversation where everyone is laughing, snarling, cackling … it becomes messy, just like what happens when you swap out words using a thesaurus.

“Okay,” some may say. “But what about if I am doing that already and just want to avoid said because I’m saying it a lot?” Well, don’t worry. Those other words do exist. Just because you aren’t supposed to use them all the time doesn’t mean you can’t use them when the situation is right. You can use them to break up a sequence of saids. You can use them to add a quick emphasis too. You just don’t need to use them all the time.

Generally? I go by a 1 or 2 per 5 rule of thumb. Out of every five dialogue tags, I try to let one or two be something other than “said,” even if that means not having a dialogue tag at all or going for a more “flashy” descriptor. There’s a balance to be found here.

The point is, however, that you shouldn’t be exorcising “said” from your stories, no less than you should be “the” or “and.” These are connecting words in the English language. They’re there for a reason. If you want to move your writing so that it’s something close to being cleaner in statement and purpose, go right ahead, but make sure it actually is first.

That’s why what these teachers are saying about filler words isn’t actually correct. If you’ve got a teacher trying to tell you to cut the word said out of your writing entirely, they’re wrong. No way around it. Doing so will actually produce writing that is less clear and more confusing to the reader—not an admirable end goal.

As usual, aiming for the middle ground is your best bet. With your writing, look hard at things to make sure that you aren’t being too repetitive with your words and phrases. Using the same too often can result in writing that is dull and, well, repetitive. However, simply changing every instance of a word doesn’t work either. As we’ve seen that can create something that is more complex and vague, something that then loses the focus of the reader or becomes hard to understand, which isn’t a desirable outcome.

So weigh your words. Don’t be repetitive all the time, but understand that sometimes for the sake of simplicity and a fine, clear read, we need to reuse the same or similar phrasing and words. It’s simply a necessity of trying to tell a good story in the best way possible.

Along those same lines, when looking for repetitive words, do not make the mistake of counting connective words or tags among them. “Said” is an okay word, same for “and” or “the.” You can use these words often without anyone batting an eye, because we’ve trained ourselves as a function of the English language to glance at them as a connective tool.

And if you want to mix things up? Again, you can, though to keep things clear my advice would be to stick with the 1 or 2 in 5 aspect I mentioned above.

That’s all for this week! See you next time!

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