As it is March and is that month known as National Novel Editing Month or NaNoEdMo, I will be revisiting some of my posts on the craft of writing. Today we are looking at Repetition: Repetition can be an effective literary tool, or it can be boring, the overuse of a crutch word, or even the inadvertent repetition of an entire paragraph.
Unconsciously using the same words too often in our descriptions is one of the pitfalls of writing. It happens to all of us, and for me, it occurs most often when I am laying down the first draft. I’m hurrying and trying to get the ideas out of my head and onto the paper, and my vocabulary can’t keep up.
Many common words (the, and, etc.) don’t really stand out when used more than a few times in a paragraph, and you couldn’t write well if not for those words. However, some words will always stand out more than others, and if you use them more than once in a paragraph, it looks like you’re unimaginative or a lazy writer. This is especially true if the word in question has a lot of synonyms you could have used instead of repeating the same word. Having a good thesaurus at hand is a great help to the brain-stranded author.
Some words don’t have a lot of obvious synonyms, so you get hung up on the few you can find. In my own work, the word sword is one of the main culprits. The type of blade my characters wield in the World of Neveyah books is a claymore, and four ensorcelled blades figure prominently in the Tower of Bones series.
Therefore, some obvious synonyms will not work as these are distinct blade types that are in no way like a broadsword.
Because of this constraint, I am limited to:
- Steel (if I’m desperate, but I despise using that to reference a weapon that isn’t an epee or a rapier)
The spell-check function of your word processing program will pick many inadvertent repetitions out for you, such as “the the.” However, I recommend printing out each chapter. Then, starting on the last page, place a blank sheet of paper over your chapter, covering all but the last paragraph on the last page. This paragraph is your starting point. With a highlighter, start from the bottom and work your way up, paragraph by paragraph. Use the highlighter to mark the places you want to correct.
Once you have marked up your hardcopy, you can open your digital files, and make your revisions much more quickly, simply by looking at your notes and crossing them off as they are completed. This method saves me weeks of work when I am trying to get a manuscript submission ready.
Working with hardcopy from the bottom up, blind to what has gone before in that chapter, allows you to see the work through unbiased eyes. When you do this, you will also find places you have repeated an entire thought almost verbatim, and places you don’t like your phrasing. You may decide to change some things around.
However, sometimes we use intentional repetition:
Sometimes we want to emphasize a concept, and deliberate repetition is the way to do it. Some of the best authors use the repetition of certain key words and phrases to highlight an idea or to show the scene. This technique is an accepted rhetorical device and is commonly found in mainstream fiction. It is used to evoke an emotional response in the reader and can be exceedingly effective when done right.
Literarydevices.net says, “The beauty of using figurative language is that the pattern it arranges the words into is nothing like our ordinary speech. It is not only stylistically appealing, but it also helps convey the message in a much more engaging and notable way. The aura that is created by the usage of repetition cannot be achieved through any other device.” (End quoted text)
Also according to literarydevices.net, repetition as a literary device can take these forms:
- Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
- Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
- Repetition of words or phrases in opposite sense.
- Repetition of words broken by some other words.
- Repetition of same words at the end and start of a sentence.
- Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
- Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
- Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
- Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
- Repetition both at the end and at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
- A construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause. (End quoted text)
Some famous examples of repetition as a literary device:
“Every book is a quotation, and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prose and Poetry
“About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
When an author writes it intentionally to drive home a point, repetition is an effective tool. It is when words are inadvertently used with a lack of creativity that repetition ruins a narrative.
Consider buying a thesaurus or make use of the many online thesauruses that are available.
I have a well-worn copy of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. This book has become just as important to me as my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. This large book of synonyms can be purchased used from Amazon, for as little as $9.99 in the hardcover form. I do recommend purchasing this as a paper book rather than an eBook. Once you see the amazing variety of words at your disposal, it’s one you will refer back to regularly.
Credits & Attributions
LiteraryDevices Editors. “Repetition” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. https://literarydevices.net/metaphor/ (accessed March 8, 2017).
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works. Published 1904. Vol. VIII. Letters and Social Aims, VI. Quotation and Originality, Bartleby.com, accessed (March 8, 2017)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, pub. 1925 Charles Scribner & Sons.