Monday, 15 June 2015

Read this to learn how to use repetition effectively in your work without overusing it.

I'm writing this article in the hopes of opening up a discussion, since this is a topic that is rarely covered and extremely subjective. The focus of the article is simple, repetition, in all its forms, as a literary device. I feel compelled to discuss it as I read a lot of new author's work and sometimes notice differing opinions on what works and what doesn't. The views expressed here are very much my own, I don't perceive them to be true, or correct, just the views of someone who enjoys the flow of words on a page.

A lot of authors feel that to write well, they must not use the same word more than once in a sentence. Whilst this is generally a fallacy there are times when it makes sense.

“The big man walked up to the big door, his big frame barely fitting through the doorway.”

This example instinctively feels repetitive, but how best to alter it so it feels less so.

One could now play about with finding the synonyms that best describe the specific objects. The man might be 'stocky' or 'muscular', the door might be 'foreboding' or 'overbearing'.

“The stocky man walked towards the overbearing oak door, his bulky frame barely fitting through.”

We've now removed all the repetition, and even added a bit of alliteration.

'But what about the use of repetition for emphasis? Isn't this a legitimate literary device?' I hear you cry!

Deliberate repetition for emphasis usually works better in one sentence rather than across a paragraph. Let's use the word 'dark' and its various forms to create an dramatic sentence with deliberate emphatic repetition.

“The dark cloaked man rushed through the equally dark hallway and disappeared, seemingly into the darkness itself.”

Now this, to me, has some merit, the repetition adds to the sentence rather than detracts from it. The reason I say it works well in one sentence as opposed to multiple is because it feels isolated and deliberate rather than sporadic and clumsy.

A paragraph with similar repetition might go something like this.

'The dark cloaked man stopped and surveyed his surroundings. He headed down the dark corridor towards the stairs. When he descended we could no longer see him through the dark.

“Shall we follow him?” Betty asked.

“I dunno, it's pretty dark” Tom replied.'

Yeah, we get it, it's dark! The word dark has lost all meaning for me in this excerpt.

So these are my rules on repetition, but what are yours? How many times is too many for you as a reader or author? What is your view on repeating a whole phrase, verbatim, throughout a novel? Add your comments below to help other writers hone their skills and find their voice.

“The views expressed in this article do not represent those of and any inference to books or authors past or present is purely coincidental.”


  1. Repetition can be a killer. Someone noted that I used the word 'meticulous' way too frequently in my manuscript, so I looked into it. It was used three times in over 70,000 words. Those three uses were all within a few pages of each other. That is the first thing this particular reader had to say about the book. Meanwhile, the same reader made no mention of the intentional repetition of a word in another manuscript, "Brian hated rental cars almost as much as he hated driving after dark. Both of those hatreds paled in comparison to his hatred for driving in the rain."

    In the latter case, using synonyms sounds silly to me. "Brain loathed rental cars almost as much as he despised driving after dark. Both of those hatreds paled in comparison to his disgust for driving in the rain." Probably because they are meant in comparison. I think it just goes to show that there is a time and a place for repetition. The key is finding the correct time and place.

    Having said that, I have read a number of books in the last month that used 'had had' and 'that that'. Is there ever a case where either of those is correct? The only case I can think of where it might be necessary is when used in conjunction with an idiom like, "Barry had had enough." But even reading that it seems like you should just take the extra two seconds to rewrite it as "Barry couldn't take it anymore." or something similar.

    1. I once wrote a sentence with 'had' three times in a row just to prove a point to a friend. I had had had written three times in a row in fact! I wouldn't recommend it though and you're quite correct, if the tongue stumbles when reading it, it's probably best to find another word.