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ASNE Online Ethics Tool

Posted, May. 11, 2004
Updated, May. 11, 2004

QuickLink: A63482

Writing Tool #5: Observe Word Territory

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Observe "word territory." Give key words their space. Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect.

I coined the phrase "word territory" to describe a tendency I notice in my own writing. When I read a story I wrote months or years ago, I am surprised by how often I repeat words without care.

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Writers may choose to repeat words or phrases for emphasis or rhythm. Abraham Lincoln was not redundant in his hope that a "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Only a mischievous or tone-deaf editor would delete the repetition of "people."

To observe word territory you must recognize the difference between intended and unintended repetition. For example, I once wrote this sentence to describe a writing tool:

Long sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding, creating an effect that Don Fry calls "steady advance."

It took several years and hundreds of readings before I noticed I had written "create" and "creating" in the same sentence. It was easy enough to cut out "creating," giving the stronger verb form its own space. Word territory.

In 1978 I wrote this ending to a story about the life and death of Beat writer Jack Kerouac in my hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida:

How fitting then that this child of bliss should come in the end to St. Petersburg. Our city of golden sunshine, balmy serenity, and careless bliss, a paradise for those who have known hard times. And, at once, the city of wretched loneliness, the city of rootless survival and of restless wanderers, the city where so many come to die.

Years later, I admire that passage except for the unintended repetition of the key word "bliss." Worse yet, I had used it again, two paragraphs earlier. I offer no excuse other than feeling blissed out in the aura of Kerouac's work.

I've heard a story, which I cannot verify, that Ernest Hemingway tried to write book pages in which no key words were repeated. That effect would mark a hard-core adherence to word territory, but, in fact, does not reflect the way that Hemingway writes. He often repeats key words on a page — table, rock, fish, river, sea — because to find a synonym strains the writer's eyes and the reader's ears.

Consider this passage from "A Moveable Feast":

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

As a reader, I appreciate the repetition in the Hemingway passage. The effect is like the beat of a bass drum. It vibrates the writer's message into the pores of the skin. Some words — like "true" or "sentence" — act as building blocks and can be repeated to good effect. Distinctive words — like "scrollwork" or "ornament" — deserve their own space.

Finally, leave "said" alone. Don't be tempted by the muse of variation to permit characters to "opine," "elaborate," "chortle," "cajole," or "laugh."


  1. Read a story you wrote at least a year ago. Pay attention to the words you repeat. Divide them into three categories:
    a. function words ("said" or "that")
    b. foundation words ("house" or "river")
    c. distinctive words ("silhouette" or "jingle")
  2. Do the same with the draft of a story you are working on now. Your goal is to recognize unintended repetition before it is published.
  3. Read some selections from novels or nonfiction stories that make use of dialogue. Study the attribution, paying close attention to when the author uses "says" or "said," and when the writer chooses a more descriptive alternative.

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