Repetition – When to Use It and When to Avoid It

This is a subject that provides contradictory advice for writers, with the general consensus that writers should avoid repetition, but it doesn’t always say what kind of repetition to avoid, since it can actually be used effectively in narrative and can make a difference to the tone of the writing.
Generally speaking, the kind of repetition writers should avoid is the non-rhetorical kind, one that often makes the sentence structures awkward and shows that the writer isn’t focused on the words they’re using. The repetition could be certain words, phrases or even ideas. This is the kind of negative repetition that writers use without actually realising.
Positive repetition, on the other hand, is a rhetorical tool used for effective narrative delivery, emphasis, emotional or dramatic effect, narrative depth or for amplification.
Negative Repetition
Every writer does it. That’s how common it is. While in the throes of writing, we don’t often realise we’ve repeated certain words or even phrases, but it’s not a major thing and can easily be rectified at editing stage.
This kind of repetition is the stuff editors don’t like to see – recurrence of words that just make the narrative ineffective and clunky. That’s because there is no emphasis or dramatic effect and no added depth, for example:
She stood at the door and sighed heavily and watched for his reaction, but he seemed to resist the bait and kept a stoic, heavy expression which belied his thoughts. She knew that look and knew she wouldn’t win.
You can see that the words heavy/heavily are used. It doesn’t matter if the repeated words are a mix of adjectives, nouns, adverbs or verbs, they still convey the same meaning and so the sentences don’t quite work. In addition, ‘knew’ is repeated twice, and not deliberately, so again it doesn’t work within the context of the entire paragraph.
With some tweaks, the same paragraph can be improved by eliminating the repetition, for example:
She stood at the door and sighed and watched for his reaction, but he seemed to resist the bait and kept a stoic, heavy expression which belied his thoughts. She knew that look; she wouldn’t win.
Words we tend to overuse are the kind of words we most often repeat. That’s because our mind thinks faster than we type when we’re writing, and so we simply type what’s going through our head without realising we’ve used the same words in the same sentence or paragraph. That’s why a lot of descriptive words are often repeated – they’re the ‘go to’ words we like using the most or are most comfortable using.
Pronouns are also a major repetitive hurdle because writers don’t realise they’ve written a character’s name countless times, for instance: John went to the car to deliver the package. But then John realised he’d left the keys inside the house and went back. John saw them on the counter...etc.
This is very common and can be rectified at editing stage. So instead of repetition, the above example is much better like this:
John went to the car to deliver the package. But then he realised he’d left the keys inside the house and went back. The keys had been left on the counter...
Negative repetition is only a problem if it’s not spotted. But that’s why, as writers, we should go through several edits to eliminate these minor problems. As with everything in life, the more you do something, the more efficient you become, so therefore, the more you write, the better you become at spotting these common errors. You’ll start to vary sentence structures and your eyes will notice certain words that stand out – ones you’ve used before, time and again.
Positive Repetition
Unlike negative repetition, the positive type is just that – it lends to the narrative and is a deliberate ploy by the writer to emphasise or underscore the story. It’s this deliberate use that the reader will understand, and that’s because the structure of repetition is different, for example:
Mike quickly stopped when he saw Joe in the middle of a large room, surrounded by smaller tiled rooms and blackened by mould.
Joe looked up. ‘You hear that?’
In this example, the sound – tap, tap, tap – is repeated for emphasis three times. This is a very common way to stress certain sounds and words. Here’s another example of the three-word accent:
His cold way, his cold eyes; as cold as the dead landscape before him....
The repetition here works because ‘cold’ is a descriptive word and each time it’s used it adds to the atmosphere and overtones being conveyed. This style creates a rhythmic flow of a particular key word and creates an impression of emotion and mood.
This can also be used in dialogue, where certain words are repeated to accentuate or reinforce the meaning and tone, for example:
‘You see that? You see what happens when you don’t listen? That’s the result. Because you don’t want to see the truth of it...’
There are lots of different literary devices to employ effective repetition, which writers don’t, or rarely, use, such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, anaphora, antistasis and epiphora etc. There are so many ways to repeat words to give a deeper meaning, to evoke mood, rhythm and tone.
If you choose to use repetition, think about what you want to convey. Think about how you want to construct it. If you use it correctly it will add depth to your narrative and should be so subtle that your reader will hardly notice.
Next week: When do you know it’s the right time to edit?


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