• Get Your Story Straight

Worth Repeating?

You Can Say It Again, But Be Careful

Many things are worth repeating: winning a contest, savoring a delicious dessert, dating someone you like.

Other things, not so much: losing a prize or promotion, choking down bitter medicine, suffering through the date from hell.

To the second list, add carelessly reusing words in a piece of writing.

“Carelessly” – that’s the key word. Reiteration can be an effective device that enlivens our writing. But duplicating a word in a sentence or paragraph, or structuring several consecutive sentences the same way again and again, can wear out your readers or – the worst writing sin of all – bore them.

Effective Replication

Some of the most admired works of literature succeed because of repetition. They use the device in various ways to add impact and evoke emotion in the reader. Here are some of my favorite examples:

  • Anaphora: reusing a word or phrase at the beginning of several sentences.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
  • Epistrophe:  recalling a word or phrase at the end of several statements.

“Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . . An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (Tom Joad’s farewell)
  • Antanaclasis: reusing the same word but giving it a different meaning.

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Benjamin Franklin, on the American Revolution
  • Tricolon: the naming of three consecutive things or actions.

“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.”

Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address

Words Not Worth Bringing Back

Not all verbiage is worth an encore. Words should not simply appear again and again; when they do, it’s usually the result of carelessness.

Sentence structure is another potential victim of errant echo. When several sentences are structured the same way, such as by opening with an introductory phrase, it’s tedious.

“Approaching the door, she began rummaging in her purse. Finally finding the house key, she pulled it out and inserted it into the lock. Suddenly hearing a noise inside, she stopped.”

How to Fix It

Even the best writers fall victim to this error, but it’s easily prevented.

  • Read your work aloud: Your ear will pick up things your eyes may miss.
  • Do a search: If you suspect you’re using the same word too much, use your word-processing program to check. I originally wrote “repetition” three times within two paragraphs, and “repeating” five times in the whole story – which is the kind of irony I prefer not to employ.
  • Get out your thesaurus: This tool can be misused as a way of finding overly fancy words, but when employed with care it can save your writing.
  • Slow down: Give yourself time to write thoughtfully and carefully. Before hitting “publish” or “send,” put aside the story and walk away from it. Take a walk. Have a drink. (As for me, I’ll be in the kitchen doing the dishes.)