Indirect Repetition

May 21, 20244 min read

If you've ever read a book and were bored, but weren't sure why, indirect repetition was probably the culprit.

Indirect Repetition

We're all familiar with direct repetition. We're all familiar with direct repetition. It's like the first two sentences of this paragraph: exact copied text, shown to us twice. That's pretty easy to find and fix, so that's not our focus today.

We also might be familiar with plot repetition, when the same thing happens in a book's plot more than once (maybe the princess is captured again and brought to a similarly challenging castle, or a nonfiction author teaches us the same lesson in Chapter 8 as they did in Chapter 2). That's also important to look for, but today, we're looking closer, at a paragraph and sentence level.

Our focus is a little harder to find than direct repetition and plot repetition, yet, it is just as important. Arguably, it's more important, because it saves your book from being boring--and no one likes to read boring books!

What is Indirect Repetition?

Basically, indirect repetition means saying the same thing twice (or more times), but using different words. Fixing this is a big portion of our jobs as editors, because it can be hard for an author to realize when they're being indirectly repetitive.

Take this example:

She was beautiful. Gorgeous. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Every eye in the place turned to look at her.

This piece of writing might seem fine at a first glance, but if you put on your editing goggles you'll notice that it's indirectly repetitive. The author used different words each time, but we learned the same piece of information (that she was beautiful) four times in a row.

Here's another example:

The food was disgusting. It was the worst thing I’d ever tasted. It tasted like garbage and sweat.

Again, it might seem fine at first, but all we learn is the same thing, over and over: the food was gross.

Ask yourself what each sentence teaches the reader, on a basic level. If you find yourself teaching the reader the same thing, multiple sentences in a row, you've probably got yourself a case of indirect repetition.

Less is More

Words hold more power when there are fewer of them. This is why cutting down on exclamation points, swears, screaming, crying, and other moments of drama helps your book. If characters are at a ten-out-of-ten the whole book, you’ll have nowhere to grow to when something really dramatic happens.

Same with repetition in description.

Now, this isn’t to say that you should only describe things with one detail each. Just make sure the details are all actually saying different things.

Fixing Indirect Repetition

So, what can we do? Well, let's look again at one of our indirectly repetitive examples:

The food was disgusting. It was the worst thing I’d ever tasted. It tasted like garbage and sweat.

Every detail here means, basically, “the food was disgusting.” So, either pick one detail (your favorite) and cut the rest, OR pick one detail, cut the rest, then add some more details that are not repetitive. Discuss some other aspect of the food besides its general badness.

Cutting all but one detail is great when you need to be short and sweet:

The food tasted like garbage and sweat.

If you can take your time, add some more, non-repetitive details. Explore other aspects of the thing you're describing. Now is a good time to get into the other five senses:

The food tasted like garbage and sweat. The texture was of velvet and dish sponge, it was the color of rotten pistachios, and it was somehow cold and burning hot at the same time.

Go on and compare these "fixed" examples to the original, and you'll see just how much stronger they are. Noticing and learning how to fix indirect repetition is definitely challenging, but getting a hang of it will improve your writing by a large margin.

And if you're struggling, well, we're here to help! A developmental/content edit will highlight these areas for you and offer solutions, and our private fiction lessons will build your skills in this area and more. Check out our services above, or email us for more info: [email protected] .

Happy writing!


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