How to check for repetition in your writing

When I’m copy-editing non-fiction, which I specialise in, one of the things I check for is whether any aspects of the writing are so repetitious that they’re likely to annoy the reader or look like a poor style of writing. I find repetition easy to spot and fix, but that’s partly because I’m looking at the text for the first time and this kind of thing often jumps out at me.

Why can it be difficult for you, the writer, to spot repetition?

You’ve been working on the text for weeks, months, or years, and it’s only natural that you become ‘blind’ to this sort of thing. But when you’re revising your text, there are some simple things you can do to check for repetition (although this isn’t an exhaustive list).

Five ways of checking for repetition

  1. Take a look at how you start sentences. Do you overuse words like ‘However’ or ‘Therefore’? If you’re writing a huge document over a number of years, such as a doctoral thesis, it’s easy not to notice this. But search for a few and you’ll probably be surprised at how many you find – sometimes several on the same page or even in the same paragraph. Skim through them, and when you think they’re so close together that they might seem repetitive or annoy the reader, change them. Use a thesaurus to help you choose alternatives. The free thesaurus that you can find at Oxford Dictionaries online shows lots of alternatives for ‘however’, such as ‘nonetheless’ and ‘even so’.
  2. Sometimes just moving a word is enough to avoid parts of your writing sounding repetitious. So if you almost always put ‘therefore’ at the start of a sentence, move it, e.g. ‘It will always be the case, therefore, that …’.
  3. Do you use certain wording or phrases too much? I see a lot of writing that overuses ‘as well as’, for example, and I end up changing some of them to ‘and’ or ‘also’, depending on what fits best with the structure of the rest of the sentence.
  4. Sometimes a sense of repetition can come about when sentence length is almost the same for each sentence. Check your sentence lengths and try to vary them a bit. Have some short ones. Have some that are joined with a semi-colon (if you know how to use one properly!).
  5. Take a look at the verbs you use. Do you use the same one when you want to say a particular thing, e.g. ‘This shows …’? You can easily change this sort of repetition, e.g. ‘This illustrates’ or ‘This reveals’ or ‘This demonstrates’. Again, using a thesaurus can be really helpful.

Repetition revelation!

I imagine lots of you will be surprised at how much repetition you’ve found in your work. We all have favourite words and phrases we prefer over others, and we just don’t realise that we overuse them. But it’s not as hard as you think to root out this problem and solve it.

If you’re interested in what other things I check during the copy-editing process, take a look at this page on my website. If you’d like a quote for some work, just contact me, attaching your text, and I’ll take a look.