You have heard the old saying “variety is the spice of life,” right? That’s definitely true for writing! If your prose is full of repetitions, your readers will quickly become bored.
So your task during the revision process is to go over your manuscript and keep an eye out for repetitions such as:
- Repetitive paragraph and sentence beginnings
- Repetitive paragraph and sentence length
- Repetitive sentence structure
- Overused words and words that are repeated in close proximity
In this post, I’ll focus on avoiding repetitions on the paragraph and sentence level. Read my previous posts on how to avoid overused words and overused body language.
Issue #1: Repetitive paragraph and sentence beginnings
To avoid repetitive sentence beginnings, keep an eye out for multiple sentences in a row beginning with the same word. Most often, repetitive sentence beginnings start with:
- a pronoun (he, she, I, they, it, her, his)
- a character name
- an article (a, the)
- a conjunction (but, and)
- a conjunctive adverb (then).
That kind of repetitive sentence structure leads to a monotonous rhythm, causing readers’ attention to flag. It’s important to vary the structure of your sentences. Try mixing it up—start some sentences with words other than names or pronouns.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about how many repetitions are too many, but I’d say two times in a row is fine; three times might be too much.
The same is true for paragraph beginnings. Keep an eye on how many paragraphs in a row start with the same word, and if more than two start with the same one, switch it up.
Are repetitive paragraph and sentence beginnings always a bad thing?
In most cases, repetitive paragraph and sentence beginnings are a problem you should fix, but there’s an exception: Sometimes, repetitions are used to create an effect.
She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think.
How should you revise repetitive paragraph and sentence beginnings?
Here are a few suggestions on how to fix repetitive sentence beginnings. Since the overused sentence beginning I encounter most often in manuscripts is “she” or “he” or a character name, I’ll focus mostly on that issue.
- First, check to see if you are using filters. If you’re not sure what that is, take a look at this blog post on filter words. Filters often result in sentences starting with a character name or a pronoun (he, she, etc.).
She heard the door slam shut. She whirled around and glared at him.
Rewrite without the filter: The door slammed shut. She whirled around and glared at him.
- If you find yourself starting too many sentences with a character name or “she/he,” take a look at the verb. Can you turn it into a noun without leaching the power from the sentence?
Rewrite: A smile lingered on her lips.
- Break up a row of actions with dialogue, description, and internalization.
Example: She regarded him for several moments. She wondered how he could return her gaze so coolly.
Rewrite with a direct question (internalization): She regarded him for several moments. How could he return her gaze so coolly?
- Sometimes, switching around the order of clauses within a sentence can work. But be careful to put the elements of your sentences in the correct chronological order.
She called him immediately when she got home. She just hadn’t expected him to pick up.
Rewrite: Once home, she called him immediately. She just hadn’t expected him to pick up.
- If two sentences starting with the same word are both relatively short, see if you can combine them.
It took both of them to get Tina out of her sports bra. It stuck to her damp skin.
Rewrite: It took both of them to get Tina out of her sports bra, which stuck to her damp skin.
How you SHOULDN’T revise repetitive paragraph and sentence beginnings
Sometimes, trying to avoid pronouns or names at sentence beginnings can result in other problems. The following rewrites are NOT good solutions:
Replacing each and every (or most) character name and pronoun at sentence beginnings with something else. Remember that our goal is to avoid too many sentences in a row starting with the same word. We are NOT trying to avoid any and all pronouns or names.
Participles: Please don’t try to solve the problem by tacking participle phrases in front of your sentences. More often than not, participles cause additional problems in your manuscript.
Example: She entered the house. She took a shower and went straight to bed but couldn’t fall asleep until 3 a.m.
Not a good rewrite: Entering the house, she took a shower and went straight to bed but couldn’t fall asleep until 3 a.m.
That’s not a good solution since the participle implies that these actions—entering the house, taking a shower, and going to bed—happen at the same time, which is impossible.
Better rewrite: Once she had entered the house, she took a shower and went straight to bed but couldn’t fall asleep until 3 a.m.
Sentence fragments—incomplete sentences that are missing a noun—are also not a good solution.
Example: She could look after herself. She didn’t need watching over.
Not so great rewrite: She could look after herself. Didn’t need watching over.
Better rewrite: She could look after herself.
Passive constructions: Don’t rewrite sentences from active voice to passive voice to avoid names or pronouns at the beginning of sentences. Passive voice makes your writing…well, passive, and it distances readers from the characters.
She knew the fever was much too high. She wasted no time calling the doctor.
Not a good rewrite: She knew the fever was much too high. No time was wasted calling the doctor.
Better rewrite: The fever was much too high. She rushed to the phone and called the doctor.
“There was”: Starting sentences with “there was” or “there were” or “there had been” to avoid a name or pronoun. “There was” is a very weak verb. Revise it and use strong, dynamic verbs whenever possible.
She knew her allergies would act up soon. She had seen three cats in the house.
Not so great rewrite: She knew her allergies would act up soon. There had been three cats in the house.
Better rewrite: Three cats roamed the house, so her allergies would probably act up soon.
Issue #2: Repetitive paragraph and sentence length
Not only the beginnings of sentences and paragraphs, but also their lengths can become repetitive. Too many short sentences in a row create a choppy effect, while too many long sentences slow the pace and become hard to follow.
Make sure you vary the length of your sentences too and mix up short and long sentences.
Vary paragraph length too.
Issue #3: Repetitive sentence structure
If your sentences mostly have the same structure, that creates a monotonous effect that will lull readers to sleep instead of keeping them turning the pages. During the revision process, make sure that you vary your sentence structure too.
Keep the four different sentence types in mind:
- Simple sentence: consists of an independent clause without a dependent clause.
She walked toward the apartment building. It started to rain.
- Compound sentence: consists of two independent clauses joined by a conjunction (FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
She walked toward the apartment building, and it started to rain.
- Complex sentence: consists of one independent clause and at least one dependent clause.
It started to rain as she walked toward the apartment building.
- Compound-complex sentence: consists of multiple independent clauses and at least one dependent clause.
It started to rain as she walked toward the apartment building, so she picked up her pace.
Take a look at your manuscript and try to find out whether you have a sentence type that comes most naturally to you. Which type do you find yourself using most often? Are you using one type too often?
Avoid using multiple sentences of the same type in a row.
While you are revising your manuscript, also keep an eye on using the same conjunction repeatedly in close proximity.
Jake’s lips trembled, but he didn’t say anything.
Tina didn’t like confrontations either, but silence wasn’t an option.
Jake’s lips trembled, but he didn’t say anything.
While Tina didn’t like confrontations either, silence wasn’t an option.
Typical sentence structures many writers use too often
The three sentence structures that are overused most often in the manuscripts I have edited are “as” phrases, compound sentences with “but,” and participial phrases. They can be especially problematic when they are used repeatedly within the same paragraph.
- Too many “as” (or “as if”) phrases
Chaos ensued as everyone hugged and greeted each other.
“Where are the kids?” Eliza asked as she hugged her brother.
Chaos ensued as everyone hugged and greeted each other.
Eliza hugged her brother. “Where are the kids?”
- Too many sentences with participles
Sidestepping a hit, he finally found some open space. His legs churning, he sailed into not only the end zone but also the record books.
Sidestepping a hit, he finally found some open space. His legs churned as he sailed into not only the end zone but also the record books.
- Too many sentences with “but”
Jennifer was still lovely beyond measure, but a wariness sat at the edges of her eyes. It had probably always been there, but Ben had never noticed until now.
Jennifer was still lovely beyond measure, but a wariness sat at the edges of her eyes. It had probably always been there; Ben just hadn’t noticed until now.
What sentence beginnings or sentence structures do you find yourself using too often? Let us know in the comments!
25 thoughts on “How to avoid or fix repetitive sentence and paragraph structure in your writing”
Excellent post, I run into repetitive words and phrases a lot. Used for dramatic effect is worthwhile, occasionally. I have shared this from my website.
Perfect timing since I’m editing my newest novel now. This is a topic that I struggle with but these examples are really helpful. Thank you.
Thank you so much for this article! It’s truly helpful and covers such great reminders of ways to keep our writing fresh.
I find in my writing that I have to watch out for and fix repetition of beginning sentences with too many pronouns in my first drafts. And sometimes the use of the characters’ names too often, although this one I catch more frequently as I’m writing.
I do find this correction process of fixing repetitions and restructuring sentences fun, and it always feels so rewarding when I finish with a section and I can see how much better it is.
I think names and pronouns are the most-often overused words at sentence beginnings, so you’re definitely not alone! I, too, find the revision and editing process fun because it takes a great (or maybe good) story to a great book!
Hi Sandra. Can you please recommend some books on this very subject, please. I would like a full indepth book about this.
I don’t think there’s a full-length book about how to avoid repetitive sentence or paragraph structure. If there is, I haven’t discovered it yet. Very likely, books on editing or revisions might touch on the subject, so I’d advise you to take a look at the table of contents of a few editing/self-editing books.
It varies with each book. Last time I apparently decided everyone had to start their dialogue with “So,” or “Really?” And to top it off, I “Damned” too much.
Very helpful, thanks. I especially liked learning the names of the four different types of sentences. Never knew that. My biggest problem is what to substitute filter words with…
(did you know that it’s darn hard writing a comment to an editor like you? I just ended a sentence with ‘with’… is that still a no,no?)
Ending a sentence with a preposition is just fine :-)
Excellent post, just this typo:
Rewrite: When got home, she called him immediately. She just hadn’t expected him to pick up.
Suggest: Once home, she called him immediately :)
Thanks! Corrected. Proves my point that every writer needs an editor :-)
Just what I needed and not easy to find information on. You should write a book on this.
Very useful content for beginners who want to write either short stories or novels.
Thanks for the help
Fine column again, Sandra,
I like to use control F(find) on PC’s. I type the word and it gets highlighted throughout the paper. It makes it easy to find and replace. I’m not sure how to “find” words with Apple computers.
Definitely! I use Control (or CMD on Apple devices) F all the time to find overused words.
These are amazingly helpful, I’ve learned more from your posts than (I have the then/than post bookmarked) school :). When I’m ready to review my manuscript I think I’ll take a day and just gather information from past posts. Appreciate taking the time to put these together and the examples are invaluable!!
I’m happy you find my blog posts helpful. Best of luck with your revisions!
I thought using participles in connecting sentences shows continuity. Guess not. Thanks.
Also, I use but as a connective too often.
Thanks a million for these examples.
It’s all a question of the right balance. I certainly wouldn’t say you should never use participles. But overusing them is a problem, and so is using them incorrectly, e.g., for actions that do not happen at the same time.
My problem, I think, is overusing sentences formed around a noun/pronoun followed by a verb. she did this, he did that, this thing does this. For example, She rushed down the corridor. The door creaked. He jumped, her hands slipped etc… I’m struggling to think of other structures! Pls help
Actually, that’s probably the structure you want for most of your sentences since they are easiest to read. Of course, you want SOME variety, especially to avoid too many sentences starting with She/He/Character name.
Take a look at your dependent clauses. Can you start the sentence with a dependent clause without violating chronological order? Or how about an introductory phrase? Here’s the opening scene of one of my historical romances (Hidden Truths, written under my pen name, Jae):
“Run!” Rika’s cry startled two crows into taking flight. “They’ll close the gates!” She gripped Jo’s thin arm and dragged her over cobblestones slick with snow. Dawn hadn’t yet broken through the clouds, but Rika knew they didn’t have much time.
Jo gasped, her breath condensing in the chilly air. “I can’t.” A coughing spell shook her slight frame and bent her in half. When she straightened, a streetlamp’s yellow gaslight revealed angry blotches on Jo’s otherwise pale cheeks. She gave Rika a smile. “Go on without me. I’ll be there in a minute. Just need to catch my breath.”
What she needs is to find new work, Rika thought.
The stuffy, lint-filled weave room made even the healthiest women cough. But, like Rika, Jo didn’t have much choice. With no husband and no family to take care of her, the cotton mill was her only means of support.
“No,” Rika said. The first horsecar of the day clattered up the hill, and Rika raised her voice so Jo would hear her over the stamping of hooves. “I won’t leave you here alone.”
Another cough prevented Jo from answering.
Rika’s throat constricted. She handed Jo a handkerchief and wished she could do more. But what? Maybe if she gave her this week’s pay, Jo would agree to see a doctor. “Come on.” Rika took hold of Jo’s arm. “If we’re late…”
Just yesterday, an Irish girl had stumbled from Mr. Macauley’s office, crying and pressing a ripped sleeve against her bleeding lip.
As you can see, most sentences are subject – verb – object, which is just fine. But the subject isn’t always She/Rika/Jo, so it doesn’t become repetitive. There are also sentences starting with a dependent clause (Example: When she straightened, …) and sentences starting with an introductory phrase (Example: Just yesterday, …). Dialogue and internalizations/character thoughts also help to add variety. For character thoughts, see if any of them can be phrased as a direct question instead of “she wondered if…” (Example: But what?).
I hope that helps!
This is great, thank you!
This was helpful, I get into bad habits at times and needed this refresh!
My God. I wish I would’ve read this earlier. Got lots of edits to make now–surprisingly my alpha readers didn’t mention it but judges of literary contests definitely will. This was so easy to understand and so helpful. Thank you!
I’m glad you found it helpful!