Repetition is dangerous for many reasons, the most concerning of which is that it’s one of the hardest things to spot. The reason for this is that when you’re writing a book, you spend months, even years, staring at the same words over and over. Repetition, therefore, is easily skipped and not seen for the threat it really is.
If you don’t think it’s a real threat, just consider for a moment how annoying it is to be around a four-year-old who asks the same question over and over and over. And over. That’s how a reader will come to feel about your book if you aren’t careful.
Repetition can occur with individual words and phrases and also with concepts of basic storytelling, plot points, and ideas.
Eli Wiesel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and author of The Night Trilogy, says it this way:
“There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning,
and a book of two hundred pages that is the result of an original eight hundred pages.
The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them.”
I love that quote because it’s so true. A book of two hundred pages that’s never been trimmed down is going to be full of clutter. But a book of two hundred pages that started as six hundred pages is going to be full of meaning and depth, every single word chosen specifically for a purpose.
Most authors don’t like hearing this, but the truth is that the first draft of any manuscript can almost always be nearly cut in half just by removing the repetition and unnecessary word choice. This is where the real work of writing begins: choosing words, phrases, plot points, and characters well enough that each serves a purpose and you aren’t repeating yourself unnecessarily.
Repetition can be as obvious as using the same adjective to describe a noun (ie. saying “the black car” every single time) or as subtle as repeating the same tone or moral from character to character or even book to book (ie. creating each character in your book with the same flaw or constantly putting them in the same situations).
There are exceptions to all of this, of course, because sometimes repetition is necessary. For example, say you have a character who’s playing poker, and the main character realizes that every time that particular character winks his left eye, he’s bluffing. Having a character wink his left eye a time or two during a poker game is necessary to prove a point. Just make sure you aren’t copy/pasting the exact same lines or using the same words to describe the scene. There’s a difference between necessary character development and unnecessary repetition.
You have to create new characters and scenes and responses for readers to feel engaged. If every single scene has the same conversation, it gets boring fast. And if every single car is black and every single character’s teeth are white, no one and nothing will stand out.
(Speaking of repetition, are you sick of me using the phrase “every single” yet?)
Sometimes repetition is easy to spot, and sometimes it’s more difficult. The best thing to do is put your writing away for a day or two–even a week or two–and when you come back to it, you will be better able to notice repetition both large and small. The next thing you need to do is give it to someone else to read. You will be amazed by how much repetition a fresh eye can catch.
For more on the topic of trimming out the unnecessary from your writing, check out my post on Removing the Flab.