One of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced writers, or experienced writers who don’t take time to edit and proofread their work, is accidental repetition.
Accidental repetition, which I’m doing deliberately right now, is where certain words or variants are repeated accidentally in the same section of text, or where repetition occurs many times throughout a single article or blog post.
It’s way down the list of sins – typos and incorrect punctuation are much worse – but if you can avoid it, your copy will seem more polished and professional, even if most readers never consciously notice the difference.
Fix it in post
Even skilled writers will often end up repeating themselves in the first draft, and that’s fine. All that matters at that stage is getting something out of your head and onto the page.
It’s in the next phase, when the text is reviewed, ideally by someone with fresh eyes, that this kind of issue is usually flagged and fixed.
In the example above, where the phrase ‘setting up’ is repeated, you might replace the second instance with ‘establishing’. And the third time you need to say essentially the same thing you could go for ‘starting’.
If you’re not a natural writer (or, even better, a practiced one) this is where the thesaurus comes in. The good news is that, in 2019, it’s easier than ever to access one online or through your word processor:
- Microsoft Word – right click > synonyms, or CTRL+F4
- Google Docs – right click > define, or CTRL+SHIFT+Y
Preparing your palette
Another option, which I often use as part of my creative copywriting process, is to spend some time before I write anything just coming up with a palette of words and phrases that convey the right tone or underline the brand.
In practice, that usually means scribbling on sheets of paper with a coloured pen or two, letting my mind wander down tangents: a practice wants to save its clients time; times makes me think of patience, and maturity; lack of time suggests pressure; pressure suggests panic. And so on.
At the end of this, I’ve often got a long list of alternative words and phrases I can use to make the same or similar points.
Practice helps too, of course. Professional writers develop their active vocabularies naturally through their work and so can easily access a bigger toolkit to draw upon. (Active vocabulary refers to words you can confidently use in writing or speaking; the range of words you understand when you see or hear them, but would never think to use yourself, is your passive vocabulary.)
Mixing it up for Google
As well as making for cleaner copy, editing to avoid repetition also provides an opportunity to improve how your copy will perform with search engines.
Users search for all kinds of odd things and the more of those variant phrases you happen to employ naturally in your prose, the greater the chances are of picking up those wandering Googlers.
For example, instead of writing ‘inheritance tax’ five times in two paragraphs, try talking about:
- tax on your estate
- death tax
- how your legacy is taxed
- a portion of any assets you bequeath
- death duties.
(I know ‘death tax’ sounds grim and a bit inelegant but, believe it or not, that’s what a lot of people actually search for.)
Popular orange vegetables
Variation is good but don’t take it too far.
In his famous Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, H.W. Fowler hit out at what he called ‘elegant variation’:
It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly, and still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurements of elegant variation.
His point is that repetition isn’t as bad as forced variation and that there is no absolute rule to follow, even if a teacher might have told you it’s taboo to repeat a word in the same sentence, within ten lines, or whatever.
An excessive concern for variation plagues, for example, music writing where drummers end up being referred to as ‘sticksmen’ and guitarists as ‘axe-wielders’, and in sports journalism which sometimes gives us ‘shot-stopper’ or ‘custodian’ to describe a goalkeeper.
In 2010 Jamie Fahey, an editor at the Guardian, compiled a list of these awkward formulations which he calls ‘Povs’, from ‘popular orange vegetables’:
[As] a former reporter turned subeditor on the Liverpool Echo, I was fast getting to grips with the nuances of subbing… In a feature on the health benefits of eating carrots, the second [paragraph] did indeed begin: “The popular orange vegetables …” Well, we sort of know that. Besides, what’s wrong with “they”? Much shorter, sweeter and doesn’t get stuck in the throat. The newsdesk was in uproar. The senior subs were in stitches – and I knew instinctively that I’d made the right move.
Some other examples he provides include Wigan as ‘the old Lancashire mill town’ and Ireland referred to as ‘the cockatoo-shaped landmass’.
The approach you take to repetition and variation will depend to some degree on your tone of voice and brand identity.
Is yours the kind of accountancy firm that might refer to HM Revenue and Customs as ‘the taxman’ or ‘the revenue’? If so, you’ll find avoiding repetition easier.
Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with saying HMRC multiple times if that’s clearest and most on-brand way of expressing it.