On Writing Well: Repetition


Much of what we talk about here at Magical Words is about stories and characters in a big picture sort of way, all of which it is absolutely necessary to master. But today I’d like to talk about some of the little things that can influence how your writing flows. A few years ago I heard a writer say that he thought the 20th Century would be remembered for “the best writing about absolutely nothing,” and I have to say I’m inclined to agree with him. Much of what is defined as “literary writing” in the last hundred years has heavily emphasized style and voice and ignored the need to actually tell a story. However, while I believe it is a HUGE mistake to ignore story, it is equally wrong to ignore the little things that can make your prose flow like water in a clear mountain stream instead of like glops of concrete poured out of a cement-mixer.

One mistake I see made in many submissions to InterGalactic Medicine Show is the repetition of a single kind of sentence, and it’s usually the simple sentence (ala Hemingway). It will look something like this:

Mike picked up his gun. He looked at Jim angrily. Jim had killed his mother. And his wife. And his baby sister. And his infant daughter. Jim would pay with his life.

I could go on, but I’m already painfully bored. However, the exact same information, while primitive, could at least be structured so as to flow better.

Mike picked up his gun, eying Jim angrily. Jim had killed his mother, his wife, his baby sister. His infant daughter. He would pay. With his life.

No one is going to nominate those lines for any awards—heck, it’s still pretty darn clunky– but I think you see my point. Mixing up your sentence structures adds variety and therefore life and interest to the prose. The original paragraph was a victim of the worst kind of repetition.

Another example of bad repetition is the overuse of a single word, particularly if it is an unusual word that draws attention to itself.

Jim smiled sardonically. He had acquired the trait/habit from his father, and his father’s father, who were both renowned for their sardonic smiles. Sardonic Jim they called him.

Yes, we get it alrerady: he’s sardonic.

But repetition isn’t automatically the enemy; it can be used to good effect as easily as bad.

Let’s look at another example, this from my WIP, An Eye of Heartston. (The first two paragraphs are here to provide set-up/ context, the third paragraph will be the one I discuss further on):

That was it. Three days since Mother had walked out on them without saying so much as goodbye, and not once in all that time had Father said a word about it. Not one word. No explanations, no expressions of comfort; nothing.

It was more than Mary Katherine could stand. Venting all her anger in a single word, she snapped the reins and drove her heels into her horse’s side, shouting “Hyeah!” at the top of her lungs. Her horse bolted, careening down the narrow trail.

No; Mary Katherine thought, she would not camp with her father tonight. She would not spend one more minute with him. She would ride like St. Lucienne all the way to Grandfather’s house and beg him to let her stay there. She would beg him to let her live with him until she was old enough to get married and leave the valley. Anything, so long as she never had to talk to Father again.

Here the repetition is used intentionally, for emphasis and for flow:

No; Mary Katherine thought, she would NOT camp with her father tonight. She would NOT spend one more minute with him.

This repetition of ‘NOT’ both echoes the original “NO” and emphasizes the emphatic nature of the emotions Mary Katherine is feeling at the time. It is the verbal equivalent of banging your fist in your hand while you’re speaking. It says ‘I’m serious about this!’

It is then followed by something subtler. Note that the first two sentences tell us what she would not do, followed by two sentences of what she would do:

She would ride like St. Lucienne all the way to Grandfather’s house and beg him to let her stay there. She would beg him to let her live with him until she was old enough to get married and leave the valley. Anything, so long as she never had to talk to Father again.

Now that you’re studying this paragraph line-by-line, word-by-word, the repetition is obvious. But I suspect that when you read it the first time (as part of the larger three-paragraph block) the heavy repetition of the word ‘would’ didn’t jump out at you nearly as much. But by repeating the word ‘would’ in every single sentence in the paragraph EXCEPT for the last one, it subtly makes that last line stand out. It feels different. It flows different. This helps create a rhythm that slows the reader so the impact and importance of that last sentence hits home; even lingers a little.

Anything, so long as she never had to talk to Father again.

Partly it works because the repeated words in the first four sentences–‘not’ and ‘would’– are semi-invisible common little words. They impact the flow and rhythm more than anything else, which is what makes them prime candidates for judicious repetition.

No; Mary Katherine thought, she would not camp with her father tonight.

She would not spend one more minute with him.

She would ride like St. Lucienne all the way to Grandfather’s house and beg him to let her stay there.

She would beg him to let her live with him until she was old enough to get married and leave the valley.

Anything, so long as she never had to talk to Father again.

The devil is in the details, because, in the simplest possible terms, writing that flows well is much easier to get lost in. And for better or for worse, I believe a lot of the success or failure of most works of fiction depends on subtle things, including, but certainly not limited to, effectively using repetition well, and avoiding using it badly. It’s really not any more complicated than that, and frankly it’s the kind of thing that primarily comes with practice (which is just another way of saying “intentional repetition for a positive effect”). But being aware of it puts you in a better position to master it. I don’t know that I would say I’ve ‘mastered’ it myself–in fact, I know I haven’t–but my awareness grows daily, and hopefully now yours will, too.


16 comments to On Writing Well: Repetition

  • Repetition is one of my bad habits. I read my work after draft zero and I just wanna cry. It looks like It was written by a two year old, or at least someone with the vocabulary of a two year old.

    Thank goodness for my ‘find duplicate words’ program. It’s saving my butt.

    I do tend to overuse the personal pronoun ‘I’ (Read this post.), as I’m writing in first person. I’m trying to fix that in revision one and two of my WIP. But what can ya do?

    If only I could figure out how to reduce my use of the word ‘the.’ That’s the worst offender.

  • I wouldn’t beat yourself up, Rozanne. First drafts are supposed to suck. And ‘the’ is one of those mostly invisible words; you’d have to use it and awful lot to truly be OVERusing it.

  • Lady Ash

    My word is “that”. I make myself go back and take ‘that’ out of a lot of my work.

  • I use that one a lot myself. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad word, just that you have to use it carefully and intentionally. That’s my theory, anyway.

  • I’m southern, so I just use just. A lot. I just don’t know why, and I just can’t seem to stop it. My roughs are littered with justs and I run a search for them, deleting over half before I do anything else. I am also the queen of the short sentences and dangling bits. I really work on that when I start my second read through, tieing them together and getting that flow you talk about. Dang editors are so picky. 🙂

  • Huzzah for championing sentence-level writing in genre fiction! Huzzah, I say! I’m developing a real loathing for readers/reviewers/writers who talk about nothing but large scale plot, people who seem they’d be just as happy with the five page outline as they are with the novel itself.



    I find my sense of stuff like this is infinitely sharpened by reading the material aloud. For me this has become an essential part of my revision process.

  • Faith — You and I both, and at least David, too. I remember working with David on a short story I bought from him for IGMS and commenting on the ‘just’ thing and he replied that his editor at Tor had just made the same observation. I suspect it’s one of the more common ones.

    AJ — Anyone who wonders why some people scoff at our genre need look no further than the fact that a lot of writers ignore sentence-level writing issues entirely. There are other issues to be sure, along with a healthy dose of an unhealthy bias by many outsiders, but genre writers don’t need to settle for less than great writing.

  • Okay, I just don’t know what you’re talking about. Your criticisms are neither just nor fair.

    Long day. I led two three-hour workshops today, and I’m a little punchy. But I love the breakdown of your writing, just as I did Faith’s post on Wednesday. Looking forward to reading the book. Repetition, like dialect and cumin, needs to be used in small amounts. A little goes a long way. Your use of it here works perfectly. But it’s very easy to go too far with it.

  • Just as you say, David. Just as you say. Now go take a nap. But just a short one; a little goes a long way.;-)

  • Razziecat

    Sentence rhythm is something I trip on a lot. I tend to write sentences like this, in which two related thoughts are expressed with a comma between them. I do it a lot, within each paragraph. It tends to make everything sound the same, and I need to stop doing it. See? 🙂 But I am aware of it. And I’m getting better!

  • As the alcoholics say, Raz, the first step is admitting you have a problem…

  • Unicorn

    Repetition of a word is a pet peeve of mine and I try really hard to avoid it. My sentences are a different matter, though; I don’t have a specific type of sentence rhythm that I use over and over again throughout the whole story, but all the sentences in one paragraph will sound the same. And I didn’t even notice it until I read your post and then went back and read a chapter of my WIP. Thank you for making me aware of this. Great post.

  • Glad it was helpful, Unicorn. Little things add up and it does make a difference.

  • It’s all about rhythm and flow, isn’t it? I’m at the SiWC, and that seems to be a recurring theme in most of the workshops I’ve attended so far this year.

    Thanks for looking at the little details. They matter.

  • It’s funny. I didn’t drop by here the past three days, it seems, and look at all I’ve missed!

    I’m honestly surprised to hear that a lot of writers ignore sentence level revisions because it’s one of the first things I do when I go through my own work. And one of the first things I do is look for repeated words and determine whether they are useful or whether I need to rewrite/restructure the line. I’ve got Thesaurus.com bookmarked for any time I need another word that my brain wasn’t quite getting the first time. And I agree, it does help tremendously to read it aloud. I print it out and read it to my wife and mark the issues as I’m reading. Printing it out seems to help me see problem spots that I can’t on the screen.

    Right now I’m working on intentionally adding some repetition, though not just a repetitious word, into one character because he’s just lost the use of his arm and he’s lamenting that fact. So it comes up a lot, every time he tries to do something and remembers his left arm is no longer working.

    I also had another concept repetition in the WIP that I thought seemed heavy handed, but it seems to be working just as I wanted it to, as it’s driving my wife crazy wanting to know what’s going on. Hopefully it’ll keep ’em reading. 😉

  • Edmund,
    My first draft of Shadowslayer was littered with turned, looked, and moved. Not only is turned unnecessary in the POV I was writing in, but the other two are such weak verbs that their repetition stood out like a second thumb.

    I agree with AJ, its great to see you bringing up sentence-level details of writing. I’d offer you a web-pat on the back, but I’m still not sure how that works.