Posted by: Thomas Drinkard | April 11, 2011

Self-Editing — 1st Installment: Repetition

Repetition can be used effectively in poetry and songs (the lyrics are usually poetry). In fiction, however, repeated phrases or descriptions quickly become annoying.

A full chapter is devoted to this problem in one of my favorite books for writers, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, currently marked down to $8.01 on Amazon . In my opinion, the book is far underpriced for writers who will read and heed its advice. The chapter is aptly titled, “ONCE IS USUALLY ENOUGH.”

In my own experience, I’ve been asked to review/edit a number of books that exhibited the problem.

For example: in a book that will not be named (an Advance Review Copy or ARC), the protagonist likes to drink “snickerdoodle coffee” (yes, it exists). After the first or—stretching it here—second mention of the coffee’s flavor, the author should have just said, “…coffee…” In the same book, the vehicle driven by the protagonist is a beat-up truck he calls, “Trusty Rusty.” Actually, he calls it the same name over and over and… well, you get the idea. When I mentioned these problems (in a private message) to the editor, she was defensive and barely short of nasty. I hope those repetitions were addressed in later editions.

The tendency to repeat is not limited to unknowns, small press or self-pub books. I just finished reading an otherwise excellent book that must have had the same description about how the principal protagonist held a cup while drinking coffee at least ten times. The author could have had a copy/paste routine for the description. To use the Browne/King phrase, “Once is usually enough.”

While reading through your own book on first edit, try to be aware of constant repetition of words/phrases. If a person, even a friend or lover, taps on your lip with a finger, the first time—and maybe even the second—can be friendly and sweet. Soon, however, it will become annoying and intolerable. In a book, it will cause the reader to close the cover and put it aside.


  1. Thomas, this is a great post. I wonder if you’d consider doing a guest blog for us with this piece, or any other writing advice article you choose. Please check out our collaborative blog, Murderby4. ( I can send you the submission requirements if you like, and we can schedule you for June. In your bio, of course, we link to your book and website. Email me at aaron dot lazar @ yahoo dot com if you’d like to chat about it!

  2. Oh, by the way, Murderby4 is a two time winner of the Writer’s Digest Best Writing Websites and we have a good following. ;o)

  3. Excellent suggestion. It will make me aware of that pitfall!

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