Repetition—Good & Bad

Repetition, when it’s done unintentionally, is one of those bugbears of writing that only comes to light when editing your precious manuscript. It’s part of the sneaky family of ‘Why-didn’t-I notice-that?’ errors that creep in, which includes missing words, spelling mistakes, punctuation gaffs and wordiness.

Annoying as it is, to discover repetition, I’m sanguine about it, as I’ve always thought that it was more important to get the story down, with effective characterisation, believable dialogue and an engrossing plot. My story is a garment I’m sewing from a pattern in my head: I’ll iron it later!

Sometimes, I’ve used repetition deliberately using the same descriptive phrases in different books in my Cornish Detective series, hoping to encourage familiarity in my readers, and maybe loyalty as they enter a world populated by characters they already know. One passage that I’ve used in each of the five stories indicates the personality of my protagonist:

This was why Neil loved his job. Always motivated by setting wrongs right in catching villains to see them punished, he couldn’t deny the thrill of the chase, of defeating a warped mind.

In writing dialogue, a writer can have fun with ignoring the rules of orderly writing, if it’s their characters who are using incorrect grammar, repetition, split infinitives, double negatives—which can be attributed to their poor education—not yours!

Having said that, repetition can certainly sneak in without me noticing, while lost in the throes of creating more chapters. The other night, I typed ‘hammering’ into the Search function of my LibreOffice software, as I knew I’d used that noun to describe a sculptor working on a block of granite…and I needed to find out what I’d said her age was. To my alarm, from highlighted examples, I saw that I’d used ‘hammering’ eight other times in the manuscript, which I was completely unaware of; I changed some for other doing words!

One thing that happens in real life, but which is tricky to convey in fiction, is known as Mirroring’ In this behaviour, people copy the behaviour of who they’re talking to, with similar non-verbal gestures. But, they also use the same words when participating in a conversation, to build a rapport. If an author does that in their prose, there’s a risk it will look like they’ve lost their powers of imagination.

A useful tool to root out unwanted repetitions is Wordle, which is described by its designers as a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.”

I write crime novels, and there’s only a certain number of ways of describing the illegal death of a victim, so it’s inevitable that murder and manslaughter appear a lot. I haven’t often used word repetition as a stylistic flourish, other than when a stressed-out suspect was being arrested, and he launched an angry tirade of abuse, using variations of the word ‘fuck’ a lot.

Some writers are famed for their use of repetition, in particular, playwright and screenplay writer David MametHere’s an example from his 2008 martial arts film Redbelt:

“You know the escape,” he purrs, as Joe yields to hypoxia. “You know the escape. Breathe. There’s always an escape.” And again: “There’s always an escape.”


The use of repetition in poetry can be powerful, as in one of my favourite poems ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop.

One Art
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

It’s all a question of balance, for repetition can emphasize setting, reinforce a character trait and lead the reader towards noticing what, at first sight, appears to be an irrelevant detail. On the other hand, saying the same thing over and over again can drive readers mad! Your aim should be to lead them on, further into your story, not throw obstacles carelessly in their way. Certainly, repetition can be used to create the sense of monotony your character is experiencing, but multiple use of the same word over a few pages only shows how bored you were while writing!

I wrote a gory fight scene at the end of my fifth crime novel, in which my hero copper gets stabbed several times, before overpowering his assailant and repeatedly beating him with his extendable baton. He wants to put him out of action, as there’s a hostage’s life at stake, but he slips into oblivion from blood loss. He faints as he’s beating, beating, beating away.

How do you use repetition in your writing?

Do you have any favourite examples from literature?

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