How to avoid or fix repetitive sentence and paragraph structure in your writing

repetitive sentence structure

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.

Example:

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.).

Example:

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?

Example:  

She smiled.

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.

Example:

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.

Example:

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.

Example:

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.

Example:

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.

Example:

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).

Example:

She walked toward the apartment building, and it started to rain.

  • Complex sentence: consists of one independent clause and at least one dependent clause.

Example:

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.

Example:

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.

Example:

Jake’s lips trembled, but he didn’t say anything.

Tina didn’t like confrontations either, but silence wasn’t an option.

Rewrite:

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

Example:

Chaos ensued as everyone hugged and greeted each other.

“Where are the kids?” Eliza asked as she hugged her brother.

Rewrite:

Chaos ensued as everyone hugged and greeted each other.

Eliza hugged her brother. “Where are the kids?”

  • Too many sentences with participles

Example:

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.

Rewrite:

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”

Example:

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.

Rewrite:

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!

14 thoughts on “How to avoid or fix repetitive sentence and paragraph structure in your writing”

  1. 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.

    Reply
    • 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!

      Reply
  2. 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?)
    Thanks again.

    Reply
  3. 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 :)

    Reply
  4. 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.

    Reply
  5. 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!!

    Reply
  6. 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.

    Reply

Leave a Comment