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!

April 18

“Joe fell off a cliff . . .”

“Joe fell off a cliff. He’s in the hospital.”

Do those two sentences follow logically? Sure they do, even though you have skipped an essential point in the progression of the narrative — the fact that Joe was injured. It does not necessarily follow that Joe was injured by the fall, but we assume he was since he’s in the hospital. But if one of Joe’s wounds (from his fall off the cliff) got infected, and the doctor put him on antibiotics, what do you think of these two sentences?

“Joe fell off a cliff. The doctor put him on antibiotics.”

Strange, right? A non sequitur (literally, “It does not follow”), right? So we can sometimes skip one step in a logical progression of ideas, but two or three or four, and we’re going to get into trouble.

Of course, we would never skip so many steps in the progression of thought, would we? But I see writers do it all the time. And I do it all the time, though I don’t see it as clearly in my own writing as in the work of others. That’s why it is so important to let others look at your draft of an article or chapter or book. And when they say, “I’m not sure what you’re driving at,” ask them if they can identify the exact spot in the text where you lost them. Then in the revision, rethink those passages, looking for missing logical steps. Your writing will be much clearer and more readable.

Too often when you give people your manuscript to read, they proofread it! Tell them you aren’t interested in spelling and punctuation at this point, but logical progression of thought.  And if they don’t know what you mean, tell them about poor old Joe.