Teachers—and editors—get out the red pen when we see the same word used several times in the same paragraph (even somewhere on the same page). Most writers don’t realize they’re doing it—they’re just trying to get the words down.
But after you’ve gotten the words down in that quick first draft, you should do another read-through to look for repetitions. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language; there’s no reason you shouldn’t avail yourself of all of them.
Nonetheless, manuscripts do make their way to me without this simple step having been taken. (Someday I’ll write the post about why you shouldn’t send Your Editor your first draft.) “You’ve used the word gazed five times in the last two pages,” I write in the margin. “Here are some suggestions for substitutes: stared, peered, looked, observed, contemplated, scrutinized, regarded.”
I understand; sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes. It’s easy to miss duplicates like this:
I know he can’t stand the babysitter, but I need help now. I hold my breath while I wait for her to answer the phone. C’mon, girl. I can’t stand to be late.
Your writing will be better, though, and more interesting to readers if you eliminate the duplication.
Sometimes it’s not precisely the same word that’s reused, but something similar:
Why would a grown woman want to get rid of her womanly curves?
In reality, that solution is not realistic.
Word redundancy is different from Favorite Word Syndrome, although the result is the same. But sometimes, oh sometimes, my friends, word repetition is desirable. (See? I just did it.) When repetition is used for effect, it’s a rhetorical device.
I don’t know if schoolkids still have to memorize Lincoln. I certainly had to—for a grade and for my mother, who was born and raised in Illinois. But in case you’ve forgotten, just look at these examples of repetitive rhetoric:
We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground … (Gettysburg Address, 19 November 1863)
… and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (Gettysburg Address, 19 November 1863)
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right … (Second Inaugural Address, 4 March 1865)
This is beautiful writing, kids, from a man who had very little formal education. (However, he read a lot. There’s a reason why we encourage our children to read, and it’s not because they could become president. It’s because they learn to become effective communicators.)
What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time. (American University address, 10 June 1963)
It goes on, repeating “I speak of peace … I speak of peace … I speak of peace …” Kennedy’s inaugural address (20 January 1961) is sublime (“…we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship …”). You should read it.
Martin Luther King Jr. also knew how to craft a fine speech. In this piece you’ll see he utilizes several types of repetition (skip ahead to 12:15 if you want to hear it):
I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today! (March on Washington speech, 28 August 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial)
King carries on with a litany of repetition—“Let freedom ring … Let freedom ring … Let freedom ring”—until I want to stand up and shout Yes! Yes! Yes! Which is, I suspect, the point.
These are all examples from master orators, but rhetorical devices are used in literature, in poetry, in everyday speech. (It should be noted that there are names for the various types of repetition, all of them Latin—epistrophe, anaphora, anadiplosis, diaphora, and so on—but this post has already gotten long.) Here are other lovely examples:
We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed … (2 Corinthians 4:8–9 KJV)
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, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
The years to come seemed waste of breath, / a waste of breath the years behind / In balance with this life, this death. (William Butler Yeats, “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”)
And do you now put on your best attire? / And do you now cull out a holiday? / And do you now strew flowers in his way / That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Be gone! (William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 1, scene 1)
You see, then—word repetition done badly can make you look like you can’t write; done well, it can make you look like a genius. The king is dead, long live the king.
The brilliant and funny Jenny B. Jones suggested this topic—thanks, girlfriend!
*Julian of Norwich, “a simple creature unlettered,” Revelations of Divine Love, chapter 27 (c. 1393)
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