1

I'm aware that, in writing, repetition is sometimes bad. For example:

"You forgot my birthday!" I said.

"No, I didn't forget your birthday."

"Then why didn't you wish me happy birthday?" I said.

"Because I didn't want to embarrass you. You know, make you feel special and all that."

(Note: I just came up with this dialogue. Probably the worst piece I've ever written in my life.)

But when is repetition good?

These are examples from my own writing. (I thought the repetition was good. But I'm not sure anymore.)

Mike called me that weekend. To be honest, I'd been trying to avoid him. Not because I was pissed at him, but because I was starting to develop feelings for him---which I guess pissed me off.


"The mind is a part of the body. More specifically the brain. That's why there are cases of head injuries where people had lost their capacity to recognize objects, faces, feel guilt or anger. Which is proof that our consciousness isn't really separated from our body. It's just feels that way. Anyhow, this notion is going away, especially now that we can literally look inside the human mind."

"I wish we could look inside the cat's mind," I said. "We'd know what's wrong with her at once."

3

Repetition gives emphasis whatever is repeated.

Repetition calls attention to whatever is repeated, especially if the repeated thing is unusual or interesting.

Repetition can create rhythms. Repeated patterns can provoke expectations in the reader.

For an extreme, haunting, brilliant example of repetition, see Rick Moody's story "Boys" (PDF).

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2

Words or phrases should not be repeated within the space of a couple of lines (except for small common words like 'the') unless you are doing it for effect, for example: "No. No. No. A thousand times no."

The difficulty is judging when it works and when it doesn't. One way to see is to read it out loud.

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I don't honestly see a problem with the two later examples. You have repeated words ("mind" and "pissed off") because you're talking about the same things/emotions multiple times. The only problem with the birthday example is that nobody talks like that.

If you wrote

"You forgot my birthday!" I said.

"I did not! I would never forget your birthday!"

"Then why didn't you even tell me 'happy birthday'?"

"Because I didn't want to embarrass you. You know, make you feel special and all that."

you still have repetition of the word "birthday," but it sounds more like something people would actually tell say.

Repetition is NOT in and of itself bad, especially in a case like this where people repeat the name of the thing they're talking about. That's one of those rules they teach in high school so you can get better grades on standardized tests.

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I believe there are two different kinds of repetition, though they can appear as each other.

In the first case, for example, you have an inadvertent use of the same non-trivial word in two consecutive or nearby sentences. It can have a dull repetitive sound to it, which can translate into boring.

In the second case, you have a deliberate use of repetition, for one or more reasons, designed to produce a certain effect. Now you're dealing with the sound and rhythm of the words, the way the individual instances of the repeated word work with the words that surround it. At that point, whether or not it's good or bad depends on how well you can pull it off, and how well it works in context with what comes before and after.

Repetition is neither good nor bad, but something you want to be in control of.

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One problem with repetition in prose is that it's not very interesting. In a sense it's a wasted opportunity. When stating that you were pissed and then later that it pissed you off, you aren't giving the reader any new information.
Instead of wasting the reader's time by restating the same thing the opportunity should be taken to engage the reader with a different look at the same situation.

Not because I was pissed at him, but because I was starting to develop feelings for him---which made me confused and angry.

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  • 1
    I see, well the thing that I wanted to do is to express two different ideas with the same verb. Pissed at him = Angry at him. Pissed me off = Made me angry. The first case would mean that she's angry at him. In the second, she's blaming her own feelings. – Alexandro Chen Jul 8 '15 at 1:43
  • Yes. That is a fine distinction. – Nicole Jul 8 '15 at 11:01

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