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Rinse, Repeat: Make the Most of Repetition in Your Writing

Saying the same thing twice (or three, seven, twelve times…) can sometimes really help drive your point home.

As writers, we’re conditioned early on to shun redundancy at all costs. That’s a good thing: few qualities are more precious for a writer than economy (and I’m saying this as an often notoriously verbose writer; just look at these parentheses!).

Used sparingly and in the right context, though, repetition is a literary device that can make quite the rhetorical effect. Here are a few ideas on how to use it in your own posts.

Play it again (and again, and again) Sam

Repetition, at its most basic level, can involve the planned overuse of a single word. Think Molly Bloom’s famous final soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where the character repeats the word “yes” more than 140 times.

One powerful way of using repetition is actually to break the mold at some choice point in your post. Repetition is a great setup for surprises and reversals.

Of course, you don’t have to go quite as far as Joyce: picking a word or a phrase and building your post around a few instances where you use it can still evoke an emotional reaction in your readers. In a moving post on addiction, written in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, writer John Strasser opened the piece with a crushing riff on the word “fine:”

Everything is fine and our family is fine and we are fine and that is a lie.

Another natural way to go down this route is to write about a word that means something to you, whether it’s a particularly sonorous word you’ve just learned or a terrible slur you want to deconstruct and condemn.

All for anaphoras

A more structured way to use repetition is anaphora, the literary term for starting each sentence with the same phrase (its opposite is epistrophe, where the same phrase appears at the end of each sentence — like in this popular post about freshman year in college, where each sentence ends with “it’s okay”).

Anaphoras create not only emphasis, but also a certain rhythm: they make a strong impression on your readers’ ears (and memories). Which is why one powerful way of using them is actually to break the mold at some choice point in your post.

In other words, if you repeat “I want to leave today” at the beginning of each sentence, you could really jolt your audience — in the best way possible — by inserting an “I’m never going to leave” right at the end. Repetition, in other words, is a great setup for surprises and reversals.

Modifying a pattern

Sometimes, simply repeating the same statement several times in the course of a piece can make for a poignant (or funny, or heartbreaking) effect. The idea is to use a phrase as an anchor, an element that ties together the post’s disparate parts into a cohesive, satisfying whole.

The idea is to keep the rhetorical device in the foreground, but also to prevent too much monotony.

In a post that’s been widely circulated this month, the blogger behind Epiphany in the Cacophony wrote a thought-provoking reflection on sexual assault in India, titled My Son Would Never Rape a Woman. She uses that title throughout the post, with a slightly modified version closing each section. The cumulative effect is truly memorable.

What we can all try when using repetition is to introduce small tweaks to whatever it is we’re repeating — the idea is to keep the rhetorical device in the foreground, but also to prevent too much monotony.

Like most writerly tricks, repetition, too, is all about balance and context. How have you used it in your posts? Do you have any tips to share?

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  1. It is a device which needs both skill and courage. Reflecting on your post I think I failed the courage test in my Manifesto (http://aliabbasali.com/2014/02/24/manifesto-the-artists-will-set-you-free/) where the phrase “the artists will set you free” is only used as a crescendo at the end, although there are a couple of other repititions built in for the sake of emphasis and rhythm.

    A degree of skill can be gained from practice and good editors, courage you only find by doing, I feel a rewrite coming on. So thank you for the thought, and thank you for the inspiration, and thank you most of all for the shot of courage.

  2. This is actually an excellent idea…I love this! It’s almost a tool for persuasion, for etching an idea or a statement into someone’s conscience, through repetition. When carefully utilized, it can really make a difference in writing.

  3. I was hoping to leave a comment that sounded sonorous but I was interrupted by my teenage boy and we began to argue over the meaning of sonorous. He accused me of being sonorous in our family because he aleays had to empty the trash. I asked him to repeat the sonorous crime so I could understand it in sonorous terms. He just kept reiterating, “Boy, are you sonorous!” Just then my little girl walked in and echoed that she also finds me particularly daughterous. I can’t win in the repetition game but I learned a new word today!

  4. I’ve used repetition a couple of times but you’re right, it has to be carefully done so it doesn’t start to wear on readers’ nerves or seem gimmicky. I thought Strasser’s use of repetition was perfect – heartbreaking in effect. This is the kind of writing insight/tip that is really helpful. Thank you.

  5. Performing this task… takes practice. Otherwise it will border on becoming boring and monotonous if you are not a skilled Artisan-Writer. I Must Say Lol

  6. I am way far behind understanding it. I am not a free flow writer, but who focuses on analysis, research and facts. But maybe with time and confidence can implement it :)
    Thanks for such a good post :)

  7. I love the use of purposive repetition – to create structure and rhythm, to set expectations, and also allow for a mental map to be drawn by readers. Great article!

  8. The pearl that I took away is that if I am going to use repetition, I should have a clear underlying purpose for employing the device.

    The posts about being “fine” and “my son would never” were excellent examples of how to create an inescapable desired effect and lead the reader to conclusion.

    Thanks!

  9. This was fun for me to read becuase I hadn’t realized I’d used repetition, and effectively (at least, I hope it was effective), in a recent post: http://randeebergen.com/2014/04/19/the-struggle-is-real/
    What do you think?
    Also, I am a second grade teacher and I see all sorts of amazing repetition in children’s literature. And since my students see it, too, they use this literary device in their own writing.

  10. Of course that is right. I use repetition sometimes, precisely for the kind of build up you mention. “The worst was not at bedtime when….it was not when…it was not when….it was…(and then something totally unexpected…) It is often used to convey suppressed emotion, without spelling it out. :)

  11. I love your blog, it’s on my reading list. repetition is one of my favorite literary devices, and quite difficult to do well. I use it often for my blog posts as a tool for creating cohesive short stories.

  12. Another use of repetition would be as a transitional device, the most famous example being the Gettysburg Address. Conceived and dedicated in first sentence matched by same two words in second sentence. Dedicated repeated several more times in this short address.

  13. Yes. Repetition is a useful device in prose writing but even more useful if your chosen field is poetry. Look at any famous poems from Shakespear onwards and you’ll find repetition of words. lines, ideas. Some poetry forms eg the villanelle make extensive use of it.

  14. I love the technique of repetition for emphasis and aesthetic, but I loving this post more. Anaphora and Epistrophe… Will read about them and definitely use it as soon as I can. Thanks for the post.

  15. I wondered at times if I was too repetitive when driving home a point… It’s all about balance when it comes to anything you do! Thanks for the tips

  16. Well I’ll be! Little did I know anything about, nor had ever heard, read the word “epistrophe,” and for the last two nights I sat down attempting to write… That is exactly what I was deliberately doing, with one word. Moreover, it started as if of it’s own accord, without my realizing until the 3rd time it appeared.

    Deepak Chopra, M.D. and author, states that “..because we experience thoughts linguistically and verbally in our brain, it does not mean that this is where our thoughts originate.” Then it makes me think of Noam Chomksky’s theory on Language Acquisition Device (LAD) in the brain and our critical periods for learning or precious verbal expression mechanisms, and develop our own personal style… after all, our species is the only one that has developed such an abstract and communicative expression mechanism. Now I’m simply rambling. There must be some order and sense to these lines. “Someone somewhere might know the ending.”

  17. ohhh.. i didn’t realize it was called ‘anaphoras’ but apparently i’ve been weaving them into my writing all along. thanks for this post! i’ll have to try to incorporate more epistrophe in my writing.

  18. hmm, why bother writing the same words over and over again? If I repeat what I want to repeat… I doubt the reader would like me repeating myself over and over again? Then again, I could be wrong, and actually repeating what I want to repeat could work by creating an effect in their minds in which the repetition becomes hilariously soothing instead of annoying by just repeating myself in a well distributed manner, right?

  19. Hi all!

    I recently wrote an article on the 5 worst plot twists in film, and I had a lot of fun writing this part (warning: spoilers!):

    Let me start by saying that ‘Wanted’ is a film that challenges its audience in a number of ways. I was challenged by the surface area deemed appropriate for the application of Angelina Jolie’s eye liner. I was challenged by Angelina’s Ethiopia-chic physique, given she was supposed to resemble a super warrior that could beat the crap out of fully grown men. I was challenged by the gratuitous display of punch-ups-turned-blood-baths manifesting as narrative tension. I was challenged by fact that Morgan Freeman was at the helm of yet another plot-maimed fiasco and was clearly willing to phone this one in with more of that omniscient schtick.

    As bad as each of these things were, nothing could prepare me for the final plot twist: Morgan and Angelina’s elite team of assassins were taking instructions about whom to kill from a cotton-spinning loom that communicated to them in binary.

    Here’s the link to the full article! :)
    http://verbiageorwhat.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/5-epic-plot-twist-fails-recent-cinema-history/

  20. In regards to basic repetition another good example of this for me would be Obama’s “yes we can” speech. I’m not even American, but for me that was a speech that was really well written and the repetition enhanced the statement.

  21. I used the phrase “on a school day” repeatedly in my post of that name to stress the joy of doing simple things on a day when school was closed because of snow. The repetition led me to feel safe and opened up some deep emotions! Beware of rhythm and repetition- it is a powerful tool in poetry!

  22. Hi, Thanks for posting this. I am very new blogger and haven’t thought of anything like this. i just write and feel and think and write and feel and think…and sense and sense and so on… I am either inspired or thoughtful about something or someone and the use of repeated words just comes out — “naturally” (for lack of a better word). The passion that dictates its application (when, where and how, how much and why and why not) is inundating my supposedly control over my pen. lol.. I sound like I am heavily drugged. lol. lol..(migraine pills…hmmmm). But seriously speaking, this is helpful… I still dont know what the gods and godesses of writing style has to say about my posts.. but anyhow, i just write and i love it.

  23. This is a great device that preachers and rappers often use. You have to think poetically and rhythmically or it can look like bad writing. The famous Paschal sermon by John Chrysostom uses this – he delivered it in the 4th century and it is read every Easter in Eastern Orthodox Sermons. He does this twice to turn the phrases around.

    “Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.”

    So to Baptists, call and response preaching happened a long time ago ;)

  24. Such a great point. i tend to use this technique in my poems. It’s actually how i title the poem. i’ll get inspired and start writing and i tend to gravitate towards a repetitive phrase that will come out in stream of consciousness . then i title the poem with it and work back wards. i didn’t even realize i do that until just now!

  25. Repetition has always been my favorite writing tool. For me, it helps get my point across. The reader focuses more on what the words mean, if there is less to process. It also can be fun! Sometimes I think I overuse repetition, and as you said in your post, it needs to be used carefully. But what can I say?! I love it, I love it, I love it. (I need some practice, obviously)