Repetition, Repetition: Effectively Repeated Words

Repetition, Repetition: Effectively Repeated WordsLast week I discussed the “don’ts” of repetition. This week I’d like to discuss a “do”: repeating words to emphasize, to garner an emotional response, or to manage rhythm.

As a line editor, I am charged with finding those pesky repetitive words that detract from the story. Sometimes, if they are special words (words not used all that often in the narrative or in everyday life), I’ll even mark them as a “bad” repetition if they are in separate chapters at different ends of the novel. Call it nitpicking if you want, but fresh words are an asset to any writer. But what happens when using the same words is actually beneficial?

Well, let’s get started, shall we?

The easiest way to show effective repetition, is to give examples. Kirsten will be happy to know that I’ve chosen Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence as one of them. See, even romantic scenes get some love from me on occasion. The reason I’ve chosen this novel is that it uses repetition a lot—and it’s good at it.

Repeating Words to Emphasize

He laid his hand on her shoulder, and softly, gently, it began to travel down the curve of her back, blindly, with a blind stroking motion, to the curve of her crouching loins. And there his hand softly, softly, stroked the curve of her flank, in the blind instinctive caress.

Firstly, the repetition of adverbs “softly, gently” right next to one another is an example of what stylisticians call epizeuxis. The two words are synonyms, which is repetitive in itself, but the same style is repeated not more than one line down, again: “softly, softly”. Minus the phonetic properties of the words (which are arguably “soft” sounds), the repetition emphasizes the way he goes about the motion. This transfers to the character, too. The softness and the blindness of his actions could translate as any number of nouns to the reader: hesitance, instinct, compassion, desire. I’ll let you decide.

The “curve” repetition emphasizes the structure of her body. It’s syntactically repetitive (the sentences are structured similarly), but the words themselves draw attention to the physicality of the scene. Curves are round; they are softer than lines. The entire scene emphasizes the softness of the body and of the emotions, and gently draws the reader in.

Repetition Emphasizes Emotion via its Rhythm

And he stood up, and stood away, moving to the other coop. For suddenly he was aware of the old flame shooting and leaping up in his loins, that he had hoped was quiescent for ever. He fought against it, turning his back to her. But it leapt, and leapt downwards, circling in his knees.

There are two repetitions here I’d like to bring your attention to: “And he stood up, and stood away,” and “But it leapt, and leapt downwards”. The rhythm is in their similarity of structure. They repeat internally: “stood up” — “stood away” and “leapt” — “leapt downwards” and this rhythm translates into the emphasis of emotion. The character needs distance, so the author creates distance by repeating verbs that move in different directions. The two also repeat externally, too, and by doing this, the repetition only reinforces this need of distance as well as the character’s subsequent desire (and also where that desire is going): the conflicting desire between staying and going away. The word choices create these two different meanings through their similarity.

The author uses repetition of words as a clever opposition, too: the old flame leaps up in the character’s loins. But when he can’t resist it, his desire continues to leap down.

In Conclusion

The more I read this, the more I see, so I need to step back before I bombard you all with 2000 pages of academic-worthy analysis. Despite my own interest in the topic, however, the uses of repetition in the examples above can be translated into your own writing. It takes practice: sometimes it’ll work, sometimes it doesn’t. But if you’re aware of you word choice, you can control the impact you’re making on the reader.

Found this interesting or useful? Check out these others on a similar topic:

Repetition, Repetition: The Don’ts of Repetitive Writing

How to Write Poetic Prose: The Sound of Words


What do you think of repeated words? Do you have any examples? Do you use this technique in your own work?

Repetition, Repetition: The Don’ts of Repetitive Writing

There are a lot of articles out there that give writing advice. I’ve come to realize that one of the lesser talked about issues (and one of my personal favorites) is repetition. So I figured I’d write a few posts to show you how to use repetition to the benefit of your work, because repetition, when used correctly, can prove to be one of the most powerful tools in a narrative.

But, first things first, what is repetition?

RepetitionWell it’s harder to define than it seems, and there are actually half a billion academic terms for the various types, depending on when and where they occur in a sentence or word. Basically, repetition occurs on all levels of a narrative: repeated words, repeated phrases, clauses, and syntax, repeated ideas or expressions, repeated sound patterns, repeated structural techniques. (See what I just did there?) The list goes on, actually.

And what does repetition do? Well, its main goal is emphasis, and just as repetition may occur on all linguistic levels, so too does its emphasis on the reader: on emotional, physical, and mental levels. That’s the beauty of it. Not only does it connect areas of the text, it also connects the text to the reader: from the basic structures to the abstract semantics.

So when should one not use repetition?

1.) When the rhythm becomes too predictable.

2.) When the reader notices the fact that you’ve repeated the same words or ideas.

3.) When it’s more of a distraction than an asset.

And when does this happen?

Badly Repeated Words:

There is a time and place for repeating words, and I’ll get into that at some other point, but in general, it’s bad practice to overuse a word, especially within a small portion of text.

Example: She stepped out onto the street, looked about, and purposely strode in the direction of Booth Street, weaving in and out of street vendors and less savory characters. (Sentence contribution courtesy of Robyn.)

There are two primary repetitive problems with this sentence: the repetition of the word “street” and the repetition of the word “out.” Even to the untrained eye, they are immediately visible distractions. A change of vocabulary will keep the prose fresh for the reader (and will refrain from launching them out of the story).

Badly Repeated Syntax:

Syntax is the way we arrange sentences, and the way we arrange sentences is important to rhythm. It may be one form of repetition that is less obvious to the author at first, but it’s immediately noticeable to someone who is reading your work for the first time. As I said, this is where you form your rhythm, and if it’s consistently the same rhythm, you run the risk of boring your reader.

Example: I went to the store. I bought some eggs. I went home.

Despite the simplicity of these sentences, there are several issues of repetition here. Firstly, the repeated pronoun “I” is not only a repeated word, but it’s used repeatedly to start the sentence, which means the subject never once changes. But that’s not the only reason these sentences are so repetitively boring. Check out the syntax structure: Subject + Verb+ Object/prepositional phrase. There is no variation from that pattern. Most people would suggest combining the sentences: I went to the store to buy some eggs and then went home. Not much more interesting, but at least it gets to the point.

Repeated Ideas or Information:

Not only is repeating ideas distracting, but it’s somewhat insulting to the reader’s intelligence. It’s possible to repeat themes, for instance, but if you have characters repeating information over several pages, that’s going to get annoying.

One example I can think of is from a book I recently (several months ago) read. The character always performed the same motions when she sat down (with the same wording, too). Something like: “She sat on the chair and tucked her legs beneath her.” At first, this was used to emphasize the character’s issues with trusting people. Eventually, I started noticing she did it every time she sat, and then I started wishing the author would find different words to show the character’s way of withdrawing in social settings. It was so noticeably repetitive that I still remember this. (I went and actually ran a count of how many times the author wrote it into the novel.) Avoid this by finding different ways to describe a character’s actions.

In Conclusion:

For a prose writer, repetition will make or break the text. Too much in the wrong way is going to drive your readers crazy (perhaps off the nearest cliff), but just the right touch of it can help hone that emotional moment you were working on, for instance, or call attention to the right parts of a scene in just the right way. Most importantly, however, repetition will give your writing rhythm. Want to write poetic, lyrical prose? Learn the art of repetition. 

Like this post? These others may interest you:

Repetition, Repetition: Effectively Repeated Words

Writing Fluid Fiction: How to Use Italics


So what do you think? What repetitive mistakes have you seen? Which ones have you seen that you like?   Thoughts, comments? Let me know!