Repetition is a deadly weapon: Handled with care, it can give writing the punch it needs to remain memorable – but clumsy repetition, on the other hand, can kill a reader’s enjoyment of your story quicker than you can say “slamming it shut and throwing it in the fire.”
Repetition can come in a variety of forms: Rhythm repetition, language repetition, or metaphor repetition. Each is tricky to master, as they all have their good and evil sides – they can work for your story, or against it.
You might recognize this famous passage from Gary Provost, quoted in Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
This is a more effective demonstration of language repetition than we could possibly come up with, and you can see the impact it has on the impression of what’s being said. The five-word sentences are tedious and become difficult to read, like wading through mud. When the sentence length is varied, the prose begins to sing.
This passage is an example of long sentences used appropriately, as part of a larger pattern. Too many long sentences in a row, on the other hand, will befuddle the reader and leave them impatient.
Another iteration of language repetition is using the same “favorite” words for settings and situations that arise often in our stories. Most authors are guilty of this. An easy way to combat it is by searching your manuscript for certain words you suspect appear more than once, and replacing some of those with synonyms. A case for exception would be “he said” and “she said” – where “exclaimed”, “yelled”, “whispered” or “mumbled” would likely weaken the dialogue.
Repetition of metaphor is another deadly form of repetition, and like having “favorite” words it’s often the case that authors have “favorite” turns of phrase they use multiple times in the same book or across series. In fact, in just reading this you’ve likely had at least one author spring to mind who is notably guilty of repeating metaphors.
Clichés can easily be viewed as metaphor repetitions on a national or international scale. Whilst whether or not the use of these constitutes a problem is contextual (use of clichés could be a character trait, for example), authors may have subliminally built up their own bank of personal clichés they trot out on any occasion. A blood-red sunrise might be your own personal cliché, or emerald eyes… or even the tendency to describe a character’s hairstyle before other physical traits or their personality.
The problem with repetition is that, when used without intentional focus, it leads to a passive reading experience. Clichés and repeated words and phrases ensure that active engagement of the reader’s conscious brain begins to taper off – they are no longer processing your words with any effort, and the whole affair degenerates into the equivalent of the saying “in one ear, and out the other.”
The result is, sadly, boredom and dissatisfaction.
So, when is repetition a good thing? It can be used very effectively to hammer home a core idea or motif of your work: Think “nevermore” in Poe’s The Raven. It can also be used to create foreshadowing, or add detail to a character (people often repeat themselves in real life). Just try not to over-egg the pudding.
Cliché intended, of course.
No grammar checker can save you from repetition: Only a good line editor, or reading your work from a fresh perspective, can help tighten your prose and breathe life into a tired sentence.
Thankfully, if you’re an AutoCrit member, you have constant access to our Repetition report – which, like an eagle-eyed line editor – points out every relevant instance of repetition in your manuscript and lets you know what you should do to fix it…
Right down to the number of words you should change so you can produce a novel that matches the standards of the most successful in your genre.
Better yet? You can fix it in real time, right there in the editor, and watch your writing improve before your very eyes.
Now that’s something you’ll find is worth repeating!
Fancy having your very own dedicated line editor and genre advisor to hand? Then get started with AutoCrit for free by clicking here.