I just finished a chapter-by-chapter repeated word search of my manuscript, and it was brutal. I started at the end of March and have been working on it diligently since then. That’s right–for six weeks! You may think that’s dedication, but I would never have had the patience for it if I hadn’t been participating in a weekly chapter swap with another writer.
I’m not sure how you would do this if you’re working in Word, but I described how I went about the actual process for Scrivener in an initial post titled Quick Tip: Check Frequently Used Words by Chapter. As I mentioned in that post, previously I searched the overall manuscript and spent about two weeks weeding out my crutch words. This process was so much more in-depth. It took me about three hours per chapter because I searched almost every word that appeared even twice in a chapter to ensure that it actually needed to be there twice. Often it did. I’m not by any means suggesting that you should only use a word once per chapter–heck, sometimes you need to use a word fifteen times in a chapter!–just that it’s worth the effort to examine every word and make sure you’re using the best word. Because as writers we all have a tendency to fall back on familiar words, and they may not be the words that are most appropriate for our characters or the particular scene.
Here are some reasons you might want to change a word, even if it only appears twice.
It shows up within two paragraphs, and it’s not for emphasis. This happened quite often in my chapters. A word I’d never have noticed otherwise (like “interrupt”) would appear in one paragraph and then again in the next. Particularly if it’s not that common of a word, it really stands out if you repeat it too close together, even if you aren’t using it the same way.
Two different characters use the same term, and it fits one voice better than the other. Think about the voice. Maybe it’s an innocuous enough word that both characters would say it, but perhaps there’s a stronger choice for one of them.
Characters are shrugging, sighing, laughing, nodding, etc., more than once. I check for beat words in an overall manuscript search, but they were thrown into sharper relief in a chapter search. It forced me to carefully observe each character’s movements within the chapter to ensure I wasn’t doubling up on them–or if I was, that it was purposeful.
It highlights a vague word/phrase that you could make more specific. I’m not sure how to best describe what I mean here, but I found that highlighting these commonly used words made me really think so that I’d dig deeper and improve on vague phrases. Often it was when a character used words/phrases like “something,” “what we’d done,” “thing,” “everything,” etc., in thoughts or dialogue. Sometimes those catch-all words were appropriate, but in other cases I needed to replace them with a more specific description. For my current manuscript, it was often a lot funnier for my characters to say something more specific. For example:
“You found us, and considering our history, I couldn’t tell you what had happened.”
“You found us, and considering our history, I couldn’t tell you we ran away because we’d lost our dead babysitter.”
You’ve used the exact same phrase more than once in the same chapter. Maybe I would have caught this in a broader manuscript search for common words, or maybe a CP/reader would have noticed it, but it definitely stood out when I was searching within a single chapter. Since I fast-draft, I generally write a scene and/or chapter within a day, so it’s not surprising an exact phrase would pop up more than once. And when you’re just reading through, it’s easy to skim over it if it’s a common phrase. By completing this concentrated chapter-by-chapter search, I’ve eliminated these types of brain blips :).
A WORD OF CAUTION: I always include this caution because it’s very important. When searching for and replacing commonly used words, it’s easy to get happy with the thesaurus and write out voice. So my next step after completing this process is to read through the whole manuscript again. I expect that I’ll change some of these words back to the original words I’d used, even if it results in some repeated words. Sometimes that’s necessary for voice. I recommend reading the manuscript aloud for a voice check, either reading it yourself or having the computer read it. I do both at some point while revising.
How detailed do you get checking for repeated words?