O is for onomatomania

Sin #14: Words for words that you use/like more than other words for words

Onomatomania is the desire to use particular words over and over again. Words that stick in the authors mind for one reason or another. They may be words that they like the sound of, or words they believe lend a certain authority to their work, or they may just be words that sound funny…like collywobbles and finagle.

I have to admit, I do this.

And most likely…you’re guilty of this sin as well.

After all when you’re writing 100,000+ words you’re bound to repeat a few!! Kudos to those who have finished a novel using each word only once.

The problem starts when you use a particularly obscure word repeatedly.

Suddenly a damn fine word turns into a joke as the reader has it flung at them like poo from an angry monkey. No amount of ducking and diving will allow them to avoid the word and eventually it will turn into some kind of mad drinking contest with the reader downing a shot every time they see the word “tabernacle”.

I’ve noticed this sin even in the books of the most elite of authors. No one is safe from the allure to gather up a selection of their favourite words and keep them clutched to their chest as they write, spilling them again and again onto the pages before them.

When it comes to ‘plain’ words, the task of repeating words can be just as awkward. For instance a short story I wrote a while back was set in a basement. Now even with a word count of 7,000 there are only so many times you can repeat the words basement, stairs and floor (a lot of the action took place on the floor). The trouble is if you use a different word each and every time you mention one of these terms (basement, room, underground, substructure, cellar, vault, storage space, storeroom…etc) you’re going to sound like you swallowed a thesaurus and it got lodged in your throat.

Variation is prudent but you have to accept that you will repeat certain words. The reader will also accept this and, if done correctly, might not even notice!

Just be careful with obscure words (defenestration, flocinaucinihilipiliphication, goose) as these stand out so much even slight repetition may jar the reader from the story.

So, to sum up you will use some words more than other words, other words for simple words are useful but not as important as finding other words for more complicated words. But as long as the rest of your words are good, then people will be more interested in the main body of words rather than individual repeated words



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    • Ellie on April 18, 2011 at 13:35
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    Another great post. I know exactly what you mean about obscure words feeling awkward. I read a short story by Stephen King recently and he used the word upchuck three times and it really stood out. Now I'm normally guilty of repeating words such as that and had, but that's another story altogether.

    I have a descriptive word finder, which I would recommend any writer to buy. It helps you find another way of saying something.

    Ellie Garratt

    • Claire Goverts on April 18, 2011 at 16:19
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    Great post, I get certain words I tend to overuse when I'm writing. Sometimes the words are ones that are fun and other times it's random. Just is one I overuse.

    I use Wordle.net to check for word overuse, plus to it creates a pretty graphic of the words.

    • Nate Wilson on April 18, 2011 at 16:41
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    Now wait just a defenstrating moment! Just because you're an onomatomaniac doesn't mean the rest of us are guilty of the same sin. I know I'm not, since I make sure to just use each word a few times, and fewer if it's uncommon. Now if you'd just retract your damning statement above, I think we can both agree that would be the just thing to do.

    Finagle G. Collywobbles

    • Susan Oloier on April 18, 2011 at 17:20
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    This is a great post. In fact, I noticed this about The Golden Compass when I read it. Instead of concentrating on the story, I found myself anticipating–and then counting–the times Pullman used the word (made up, no less) "anbaric" in the book. After awhile, it made an appearance on almost every page. It completely detracted from the story and writing for me.

    • Lynda R Young on April 18, 2011 at 23:18
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    yup, I have a tendancy to repeat my words butthat's why I like word search feature in Word. I can find them, see how often I repeat them, and think of replacements.

    • Janel on April 19, 2011 at 00:05
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    I just had a flash fiction story published. Just a tiny, bitty thing. Somehow, during the editing process I missed the fact that I had repeated gelatinous twice! Arrrrgh!!! Covering my eyes and turning red.

    • Gregg on April 19, 2011 at 13:22
    • Reply

    Very good post! I didn't know there was a word for my bad habit. Thanks. This was interesting.

    Gregg Metcalf
    Colossians 1:28-29

    Gospel-driven Disciples

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