The Uses of Repetition in Writing…and in Life

In writing, repetition is often frowned upon because it is seen as a lack of cleverness, or perhaps laziness–couldn't you take the time to find a different word so you don't keep repeating the same one?  Please, please, please can't you vary the length and structure of your sentences so as to avoid the mind-numbing sing-song cadence that results?  And the same is true in life.  Repetition is considered dull.  Driving the same way to work every day, repeating the same routine day in, day out–bor-ing.

But lately I've been rethinking repetition in both arenas.

Why? For a couple reasons, the most important being my new object of adoration.  I'm in love with a man from India, who, unfortunately, has been dead since 1999.  His name is Eknath Easwaran, and he wrote a number of books on spirituality. Easwaran was knowledgeable, and wrote about, most of the world's great religious traditions but as far as I can tell he espoused none exclusively.  What he did recommend was a simple 7-step spiritual way of life which is explained in his book, Passage Meditation.


And here we come to the repetition.  Easwaran talks about two forms of repetition–passage meditation, which consists of meditating by repeating a spritual passage over and over again, and using a mantram, which you may know as a mantra.  The use of a mantram involves repeating a word or phrase over and over as you go about your daily life. 

I love the passage meditation that Easwaran describes.  To me it has a two-fold purpose.  It calms and focuses the mind, and at the same time, it drives the meaning and heart of the spiritual passage deep into your being.  But more than that, I love Easwaran and his clear style of writing.  He's written about a gazillion books, I'm happy to report, and I'm eager to read as many of them as I can get my hands on.


But we're not talking about my reading list.  We're talking about the uses of repetition.  As I've been reading Passage Meditation and pondering repetition, I've also been reading a manuscript from a client.  As I read, I noted a place where she had used repetition to good effect and wrote a comment telling her so.  And then I pondered the synchronicity of life–repetition cropping up all around me.  So the thought occured we could discuss when it is a good idea to use repetition in writing (seeing as how we've already talked about when to use it in life).  Here we go:

1.  Use repetition for rhythm.  This is perhaps the most common way repetition is used in writing.  You can repeat a word to establish a rhythm, or a sentence structure.  And, be aware, the opposite is also true–when a sentence does not have parallel structure, it is jarring to our sense of rhythm.  Repetition is crucial for rhythm, which is, after all, based on it (I'm thinking drumbeats here).

2. Use repetition for emphasis.  Most often, the experts will tell you to vary your word use.  This is one of the most common comments I make on manuscripts.   But sometimes you want to emphasize a point and repetition can be used to do so.

3.  Use repetition for comfort.  Comfort?  Well, yes.  Sometimes it just sounds nice to repeat words and the effect is comforting, like marshmallows melting in hot chocolate.

4. Use repetition for attention.  Once in awhile you'll want to jar the reader or surprise her, or wake her up. Repetition can be effective for this purpose.

5. Use repetition for effect.  Like yodeling in the middle of a song, or splashing black paint in the middle of the canvas, sometimes you need some bells and whistles to create a certain effect.  Try repeating words and see what that does.

So there you have it, my list of when to use repetition in writing.  I'm sure I've not mentioned all of them.  When do you use repetition, or do you avoid it?  How about repetition in meditation, or meditation in general?  Do you use it to enhance your writing?

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8 Responses to The Uses of Repetition in Writing…and in Life

  1. Ledger D'Main 12/08/2010 at 13:58 #

    Why is it that the reader in #4 is a ‘she’? Isn’t that being gender bias?
    Isn’t it? Isn’t it? Isn’t it? 😉

  2. Charlotte Dixon 12/08/2010 at 14:11 #

    Not when you consider that for hundreds of years the pronoun “he” was used nearly exclusively.

  3. Roy Burkhead 12/09/2010 at 08:08 #

    I think that repetition can be effective, interesting, and original. Of course, there’s bad repetition, the sort that is done almost subliminally. That’s the ugly stuff for all the obvious reasons. But when done (keeping your five reasons in mind!) on purpose, with precise word choice, it shows that the writer is engaged, using a writing technique to achieve a particular goal. I am a fan of repetition, if done in the correct way for the right reasons. Great post!

  4. Charlotte Dixon 12/09/2010 at 08:16 #

    Thanks, Roy, I always love it when you drop in.

  5. Roy Burkhead 12/09/2010 at 08:48 #

    I’ll be around more often, soon, once classes are…finally…over! :-)

  6. Charlotte Dixon 12/09/2010 at 09:54 #

    Roy, Congratulations on finishing up your teaching…at least for the moment. I look forward to having you around more!

  7. Melissa Donovan 12/13/2010 at 16:29 #

    I think repetition is difficult to master. It can be used effectively, but doing so takes considerable skill. In the general sense, repetition weakens a piece. For example, you probably don’t want to use the word “small” in close proximity to describe two different things. Here’s an example:

    John pulled up in a small car, and Kate loaded her small suitcase into the trunk.

    I think repetition is extremely effective when used in the greater context. John pulls up in a small car and Kate puts her suitcase in the trunk. A few chapters later, Kate pulls up in a car of her own and John puts his suitcase in the trunk (or backseat). There are many possible variations but this repetition makes the action familiar. In this sense, repetition is a great tool for emphasizing the cyclic nature of our life experiences.

  8. Charlotte Dixon 12/13/2010 at 20:53 #

    Great points, Melissa, thanks for chiming in. You give really good examples.
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