Familiarity breeds… more familiarity?


I noticed a word last night.

To be precise, I noticed a lot of them and far too many were the same.

Edit Number 4 (I have a far less polite name for it than that in private) of the novel is progressing at the pace of a wounded snail. I’m busily typing up the edits I made long-hand whilst sitting on trains to and from work.

It is tedious in the extreme. Oh boy, oh boy is it tedious. BUT (capitals, ‘cos this is important) it has taught me something fascinating.

I have words and phrases I over-use.

Last night, I discovered 34 instances of the word “familiar”.


3 of them occurred within 3 consecutive paragraphs.

That’s more than familiar, that’s positively intimate.

This realisation subsequently led on to a Sherlock Holmes-style investigation of exactly how such a heinous bludgeoning of the English language could have occurred. I like to think I have a broad vocabulary and I know lots and lots and lots of words. Some of them quite good ones. So why this insistence on one single variant?

I came up with two answers:

1)    I like things that are familiar. I’m not a big fan of change in general… yep, OK, whoa there! That’s true but this is not the place for psychoanalysis.

There’s a second, more writerly, solution:

2)    The novel has been written and edited in chunks over a long period of time. Like a jigsaw, pieces which have been hiding at the outset have been slotted in over the course of its evolution.

“So what, you slovenly abuser of vocab?” I hear you ask.

I’ve never, until now, read the whole book through from end-to-end with no gaps, omissions or chopping-up of the timeline. So I’ve never had the opportunity to hear the repetition until now.

Which means that this agonising 4th edit is actually one of the most important pieces of work I have ever done since I committed the opening sentence to paper all that time ago.

And that, boys and girls, is a massive relief that stops me heading off in search of a chocolate digestive and a duvet at this very moment. Onwards and upwards, to boldly hunt out other flagrant violations of my Mother tongue.

Do you have words or phrases that you find cropping up time and time again without you realising? And how do you write – are you structured or random?

Do tell…


11 thoughts on “Familiarity breeds… more familiarity?

  1. Writing a novel set in the American Plains, I wasn’t surprised to find repeated use of “in the deep distance.” This phrase is from an old Genesis prog-rock song, so I know exactly when it was added to my vocabulary.

    A straight read-through (more than one, actually) is essential to a good edit, IMHO. There are just some things that wouldn’t register otherwise.


  2. To answer your question, I’m a panster, so I bounce all over the place like in one of those moon walk things at carnivals. Any moment I might careen into the wall and have a writing accident. I have found that Smart-Edit, which is a free tool, is helpful in identifying phrases I repeat. If you’re interested, you can download it here: http://www.smart-edit.com/ I found it through Galley Cat, and it’s been pretty useful!


  3. “Really” and “very” are my two worst offenders. Come edit time, I’m sure I can trim a good 500 words just by deleting the majority of them. Oh, and “intense.” I love that word, apparently. I’m sure many more will turn up when I start editing in earnest…


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