Editing Tips 1: Repetition, Repetition

This is the first of several posts in which I will share insights that may help you craft a better book.

Repetition is not your friend!
Are you repeating the same word several times in a paragraph? There are occasions when this can’t easily be avoided, of course. While editing a book on interviewing recently, I came to realize that few words can take the place of “interview.” This word means more than a “conversation” or a “meeting,” and “interrogation” indicates an altogether different process. Almost all the words listed in my trusty thesaurus failed to match the exact meaning.

In such cases, I feel sure readers understand that reusing a word specific to the topic of the book is necessary. However, more often than not, a synonym or phrase could take the place of an often repeated word. Just be certain the synonym you choose actually expresses what you want to say. In my novel I wrote about the main character’s dream that happens while she is asleep. I couldn’t use the synonyms fantasy, trance or reverie, which all generally refer to something that happens in a state other than sleep.

Are you using the same sentence structure repeatedly? If your book offers little variety in sentence structure, your readers may become bored. Even a page of sentences filled with action verbs can lose its appeal if there is no variation in structure. However, the much more common problem is extensive use of passive voice (when the object of an action is used as the subject of the sentence). These sentences contain some form of the verb “to be.” Here’s an example:

Passive voice: The rock star was cornered by the relentless paparazzo.
Active voice: The relentless paparazzo cornered the rock star.

I recommend that you take a look at the first five pages in your book and examine them closely with this in mind. (It’s optimal to do so early in the writing process.) Here are a few questions you will want to ask yourself as you read:

  • Does virtually every sentence on the page contain a passive verb?
  • Are you starting almost all of your sentences with a prepositional phrase?
  • Do you have a good mix of simple, compound, and complex sentences, or are you primarily using only one of these sentence structures?

Be aware that a simple sentence in the midst of several complex sentences can draw a reader’s attention. Writers can use this structure as a way of bringing emphasis to a character’s feelings, for example, in fiction or to a concept in nonfiction.

Finally, are you using filler? Readers will catch on quickly if you are padding your book with repetitious material. How many times have you said the same thing over the span of the book? Of course, you want to make your point and be certain that the reader understands the information you seek to impart, but this is most adeptly done by clearly sharing the insights from the outset. By all means, give useful examples and reiterate the concept when needed. What may turn off readers, however, is the obvious repetition of material in order to pad the length of the book.

Time is one of the most precious commodities in our modern world, and there are countless books on the market. Give the readers content rather than repetition.