The Fine Line of Repetition

The Fine Line of Repetition


This is maybe one thing in writing that too often goes unnoticed, but many writers nowadays seem to overlook the strengths and usually weaknesses of repetition. Is it all bad—no! Is it good—resoundingly no! So let me explain.

Most people tackle editing with the sole desire to route out those pesky grammar problems and other subtle inaccuracies in their stories. The sad thing is they often overlook the most glaring offense of all. Repetition is probably the most jarring aspect of bad writing for me. I ruthless scour my manuscripts for unintentional verbal echoes, and I berate my students for not doing the same. At least for them, there’s an excuse. The Korean language doesn’t mind so much repeated words and phrases. The language has many redundancies in sound and stucture, so it is expected. But when native English speakers blantantly sidestep it, I find it irreprehensible.


Now, I know what you’re saying, the English language, too, has many words that repeat. In fact, the most commonly used word in English is the word, ‘the.’ My last sentence had it twice (if you don’t count the word itself.) But I’m not talking about that.

Even when it comes to basic story functions, the word ‘said’ is preferred above others to keep it plain and straightforward. Again, fine! It’s okay. What I’m talking about it the consistant use of certain specific words in an arbitrary manner.

Arbitrary? Well, sometimes to create atmosphere or enforce theme, an author will use certain words in repetition to highlight elements that are important. Perfectly fine. But arbitrary usage is wrong, and easy to spot.

While reading, if I notice the use of a word, let’s say ‘bulgy’, over and over again, I begin to question the author’s reasoning for using it. This is what any trained reader does. They question the text. For example:

His backpack was bulgy. (p.11)

His friend waved happily, a big smile on his bulgy cheeks. (p.12)

Walking away, Frank could see the bulge of something in the man’s pocket. (p.12)

Here ‘bulgy’ or a variant is used in too close a proximity. For this reason, I would question it. Is the theme of the story ‘bulgy?’ Does the author think ‘bulgy’ is something I should pay attention to? In the end, no! It’s just the first word that popped into his head as he wrote. Nothing else.


Then should we avoid repetition altogether? No, like I said, it does show emphasis, like the famous line:

A rose is a rose is rose.

It tells us something is important here. You just don’t want to shove importance upon us, the readers, unless it is important.

And I know—it can be hard. But that’ s what editing is there for. In the end, don’t just look at the grammar.

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