Am I Using This Word Too Much? Identifying and Limiting Repetition

Accomplished writers develop a distinct voice: a combination of stylistic and tonal tendencies that make a piece of writing sound like it was composed by a specific writer. But many writers have a combination of idiosyncratic stylistic and tonal tendencies that, rather than contributing to a distinct and recognizable voice, serve to disrupt flow or distract the reader. When rereading your own writing, for example, you might notice that there are some “filler” words or phrases you use a lot. We may not realize, let alone consciously choose, how often we use words and phrases that come easily to us. These phrases may work to our benefit during the drafting process, reducing friction in getting ideas down on the page, but they become distracting to a reader if they are too frequent, or otherwise disruptive to the Style, Tone, and Voice of the text. This entry outlines a basic revision strategy for identifying and smoothing out the repetitive use of certain words and phrases.

Transitional phrases (e.g., “as it happens,” “at the same time,” “on the other hand,” etc.) and qualifying adverbs (e.g., “particularly,” “accordingly,” “decidedly,” etc.) can, of course, be clarifying and helpful. They signal to readers when you are moving from one idea to another, and what degree of emphasis you want them to place on a given piece of information. Yet it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and the overuse of certain phrases may clutter your sentences or reduce the scope of language you use to discuss a range of concepts. When these phrases serve to specify or transition between ideas, repetitive use may impede their function, obscuring what is distinct or novel in the point we are trying to communicate.

To reduce repetition and clarify your use of transitional phrases, try the following exercise.

Step 1: Skim your draft for common adverbs or transitional phrases, like the ones listed above. Are there any that seem to come up a lot?

Step 2: Run a simple search through the document (Ctrl+F or ⌘+F in most word processors) to see how often a given word or phrase appears.

Step 3: If you find that a particular phrase or adverb does come up a lot—say, more than five or six times in a standard seminar paper—review each of the instances in which you use it. What is it adding to the sentence in each case? Is there another word or phrase you could use to the same end? Do you need a “filler” word or phrase there at all?