“Anta, you’re not writing affirmations. Stop repeating yourself.”
When my mentor and long time business partner told me this, I took it personally.
I’m not repeating myself. What the hell? I thought to myself.
It turns out that my habit of writing variations of the same text was so ingrained, I was at the point where I didn’t even recognize it. A sly grin creeped on my friend’s face, as if he sensed my consternation. He started reading the beginning of my paragraph:
As the massive ship glided into the port, it seemed to almost swallow a smaller motorboat that struggled to maintain its place in the docks. The USS Wisconsin was truly, impressively enormous in every sense of the words. It was hard for little Sammy to comprehend the sight of the entire ship all at once.
“My God, it’s almost like an entire city in itself.”
“Hear the echo?” my friend asked. He thought that I was repeating myself too much and he had a point. I was underestimating my readers’ comprehension. I had already written that the ship was massive, and repeating that it was incomprehensibly enormous for two more sentences was stretching a description to its limit. Readers should have already gotten the point by then, and if I needed to drive the point further, I would have other opportunities to do so.
Every writer has their own particular style and I’m certainly not here to insist that you should throw away your carefully cultivated form and suddenly switch to mine. However, my experiences have shown me that new writers tend to belabor a point to exhaustion and it’s often in an attempt to reach a word limit instead of actually talking about whatever situation they are exploring.
We have all heard writing advice like ‘write short and powerful sentences’ yet repetition is one of the biggest pitfalls for inexperienced writers.
In my opinion, repetition comes from a kind of uncertainty that novice writers subconsciously feel. New authors are still trying to find their voice and are often unsure if their literary techniques will work. Therefore, in an effort to convince the readers that yes, they know how to write, they tend to reinforce the same idea several times in an effort to appear as more authentic than they feel. They don’t believe their readers will understand every nuance of their writing unless they repeat themselves. I get it. I was in the exact same position many years ago, after all.
How To Avoid Repetition and Write Effectively
If you find yourself repeating a point like your brain is stuck in a loop, just remember this sage advice that my friend once gave me:
You’ll impress your reader more if you mention each point in your story just once.
In my experience, when you repeat a message, your story starts to lose momentum and persuasiveness. Your text starts to get boring. Your readers get bored. Hell, you also start losing interest in what you’re talking about.
You don’t want people to get the feeling when reading your article: yes, I know this now. Is this still going somewhere?
There are three types of repetition you should actively try to avoid.
1. The Classic Repetition
In this repetition, you say (almost) the exact same thing twice, perhaps using a thesaurus to come up with a synonym for the idea you had previously expressed. The other day I read a report on the effectiveness of mindfulness among firefighters. The text starts like this:
Mindfulness, the ability to maintain full attention with a curious and non-judgmental awareness of the present, is in recent years increasingly in the spotlight. There is a certain degree of popularization of this ancient concept.
The second sentence has roughly the same main message as the first: mindfulness is becoming more popular. The only “new” information being presented is that mindfulness is ancient and that can also be added to the first sentence while removing the 2nd sentence. Incidentally, the first sentence is also cumbersome to read.
The article went on and took the repetitiveness to an entirely new level:
From the scientific perspective, there is increasing research into the effects of mindfulness-based interventions, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). But even outside this clinical context there is research into practical applications of mindfulness takes place. The United States is investigating how mindfulness can contribute to the healthy and effective functioning of soldiers and emergency workers.
Every sentence in the previous paragraph repeats the same idea: scientific research is being conducted on mindfulness. The entire thing can be dramatically shortened while retaining the central ideas:
Scientists are doing research into the effects of mindfulness on stress, for example in patients in medical care, and are seeing its effects on American emergency workers.
2. Synonym Repetition
This is the form of repetition you’ll most commonly find in business articles. Take a look at the following cryptic sentence I read on an internationally acclaimed newspaper:
If government tasks and responsibilities are transferred (to a certain extent) to citizens’ initiatives that often have a more informal and spontaneous character, what does this mean for the sustainability of the policy?
Does the text really become more understandable by using either informal or spontaneous and not both? Not really, no.
3. The Expanding Repetition
This type of repetition is a little more tricky to recognize and is therefore one of the most common types of mistakes beginners make. Examine the following sentence:
The man left suddenly. He ran to his car and drove away with screeching tires.
On its own, this is not an especially crazy way to construct the beginning of a paragraph. You first make the reader curious with a general statement (the man left suddenly). Then you write down more specifically what you mean by that. (He ran to his car and drove away with screeching tires). Just don’t do this in every paragraph. Your text becomes shorter and more powerful when you delete an introductory sentence every now and then. Compare the previous sentence to the following:
The man suddenly ran to his car and drove away with screeching tires.
The same effect is created for the reader without the unnecessary repetition.
4. Bonus Tip: Avoid Bombarding The Reader With Your Favorite Word
Sometimes, repetition is not limited to a sentence or paragraph, but you use one specific word over and over again.
I have a confession to make: I love using the word elucidate. In fact, in one 900 word article, I noticed that I had used it 32 times. Repeating the same word over and over can demonstrate a lack of an expansive vocabulary to readers or, in the worst cases when you’re repeating a “big” word, some kind of contrived effort to appear smart.
This type of error can be avoided by just proofreading your work before you submit it. If a word seems a bit off, look through your article and find out if you’ve been repeating it too much.
Hope that helps,