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  • Writer's pictureMary Finch

Rhetoric for Writers 102: Writing with Repetition

In the 101 post, I introduced rhetoric as just being about patterns. What is the most basic of patterns? Repetition.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity..."

There is a lot going on in that passage that makes Charles Dickens's opening so iconic, but the first one that pops out is definitely the relentless repetition of "It was." That is repetition on the word level. Literally just using the same words over and over again.

"Words, Words, Words" - Hamlet

Repeating the same words or phrases in your writing might be something an editor has told you to avoid in the past. I know I have left my fair share of notes that are along the lines of "repetitive" or "you used this phrase a few chapters ago, consider revising."

If this is a blog post about good writing though, why I am suggesting you use repetition? Something I myself have warned editors against?

Well, it's because repetition, especially of words, is one of the most direct and powerful rhetorical tools available to you. A reader might miss the use of omission and a lot of the rhetoric around order can hit at a more subconscious level, but repeated words are the neon flashing lights of rhetoric.

And just like neon flashing lights, it can be distracting, exhausting, and overwhelming, so it is best to use it very carefully and intentionally.

Of course, as I mentioned in my introduction post, most categories of rhetoric can be used on many different levels: ideas, words, or even phonemes. Repeating exact words and phrases is going to be most direct, but repeating sounds, sentence structures, and ideas can be very effective as well.

Looking at our example from Charles Dickens, "It was" is not the only thing he repeats. He repeats sentence structures: "It was the [adj.] of times"; "It was the age of [noun]." And he repeats the same idea through the whole long sentence: "It was [something good]; it was [something bad]."

What repetition can do:

  1. Trigger a memory or a sense of deja vu. The human mind is a pattern recognizing machine. As an editor, I clock repeated phrases even if there are dozens or even hundreds of pages in between. While your casual reader may not be reading with the same attention (or maybe they are!), using the same metaphor or description can hearken back to an earlier event. This can be a great way to telegraph plot twists subtly.

  2. Create a sense of predictability. When you use repetition, you are setting up a patterns which gives you the opportunity to reinforce or subvert your readers expectations.

  3. Emphasis, emphasis, emphasis. Most obviously, we repeat things when we want to make sure we are understood. If there is something that your characters or readers need to understand or remember, immediate repetition is the most direct way to highlight its importance. You can repeat words exactly or repeat the idea: "I love, love, love you" versus "I adore, cherish, love you" (Of course, those words aren't exact synonyms, but we can get into that when we talk about the rhetoric of Order.)

  4. Heighten the mood or tone. Using repeated sounds in your writing can be a very effective way to convey mood and tone information to your reader. A character introduced with a cacophony of /k/ sounds keeps the mood from feeling smooth and sultry: "She kissed the air between them, casually caressing the lapel of his coat and keeping her eyes locked on the door" versus "She kissed the air between them, gently adjusting his lapel and keeping a wary eye on the door."

As humans, our brains love to make meaning out of patterns and the easiest pattern to recognize is repetition. Your readers will notice repetition and look to make something out of it (spend any time reading fan theories and you will notice they are almost always rooted in some form of repetition). Thinking about the rhetoric of repetition lets you harness this human capacity to dramatically improve your writing.

Want to make sure you are making the best use of repetition and not accidentally setting your readers up for confusion or disappointment? I'd love to take a look at your writing.

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