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?