May 21

Repetition (That’s Right—Repetition)

Is repetition in your writing good or bad? Well, that depends. Repetition can be used quite effectively, but also very ineffectively. Take this example:

“In 1967, Joe’s father made a career change. Joe was just a child at the time, so he didn’t see the significance of the change. But for his dad, it was a radical change, from industry to education. To move from an engineering office to the college classroom was a change of culture he never really settled into.”

Four instances of “change” in one paragraph! Does it sound contrived? I assure you it is not. It is modeled after a real paragraph from a real author (although it has been modified to protect the guilty). Such redundancy is a clear signal that the paragraph is wordy. By merging sentences and using a synonym or two, it is more succinct and fluid:

“In 1967, Joe’s father made a radical career change, from industry to education. Joe was just a child at the time, so he didn’t see the significance of his father’s move from an engineering office to the college classroom—a cultural shift he never really settled into.”

Removing the repetition really improves this paragraph—and yet, in poetic material or creative prose, repeated use of certain words can be crucial to creating dramatic emphasis, such as in Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns,” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

What’s the difference? How can you tell if repeating a word is a good or bad thing? Mostly, the success or failure of repetition hinges upon intent. With Tennyson, it’s obvious that the repeated words and phrases are part of the rhythm of the piece—you can actually feel the hoofbeats of the horses, can’t you? But in the paragraph about Joe’s father, the author apparently repeats “change” accidentally.

The only way you are going to make your material sparkle is if you really think through your writing. Your first draft may be written as fast as you can type it in, but when you revise, you need to keep a sharp lookout for things you didn’t notice the first time, like needless repetition. Don’t be a literary sleepwalker!


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Posted May 21, 2011 by Dave Fessenden in category "6. Revision

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