On Repetition in Writing

Photo credit: B Tal on Flickr
“I’ve tried so hard to stop thinking about him.  
I’ve tried so hard to forget his face. 
I’ve tried so hard to get those blue blue blue eyes out of my head but I know him I know him I know him it’s been 3 years since I last saw him.” —Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, page 42
Repetition in writing is a funny thing.

When done intentionally, repetition can be a really powerful tool. Oftentimes it’s used to show emotional or psychological turmoil on the POV character’s part, or it’s used to emphasize something, or show a character hyper-focusing on something (i.e.: Adam’s “blue blue blue eyes” in the excerpt above). But what I like about it is it can be a very effective and subtle tool that subconsciously gives certain messages to the readers.

When done unintentionally, or when it’s overused, however…not so much.

Like many things in writing, a lot of this is going to be subjective. Some people just don’t like repetition in writing ever, which is fair. Other people like myself think it can super effective when done correctly. Many have no idea how to even tell if they’re doing it “correctly” which is fair, because, again, subjective, and also writing is hard.

So how do you know where on the spectrum your repetition lands?

Two things to think about:
  1. Make sure your repetition has a purpose. Like whenever you break a writing rule, it needs to be done with purpose. Think about why you’re choosing to repeat that phrase or word or whatever the case may be and know the reason behind it. If it’s deliberate, repetition can work—just make sure that it is, indeed, deliberate.

  2. Make sure you don’t overuse it. And like any stylistic effect in writing, repetition can very easily be overdone. Remember: the more you use a particular stylistic effect, the less power it has when you use it. Think about spicing your work with stylistic effects like repetition—just don’t overspice your writing.
Ultimately, you’re not really going to know if your repetition is working or not until you get outside feedback—and even then your feedback may conflict a little (which is why I recommend you try to work with odd numbers, so you can always side with the majority). But if you use it carefully and thoughtfully, this can be a really powerful tool to add to your writing arsenal.

Have you ever used repetition in your writing? Do you like it when you see it in books? 

Twitter-sized bite:  
Is repetition okay in writing? @Ava_Jae talks balancing this stylistic tool and making sure it has a purpose. (Click to tweet)

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