Style Tip: Using Repetition for Emphasis

As a writing instructor, I often find myself telling students that the rules they learned for writing in high school aren’t always right.

At least, they’re not right all of the time.

For instance, one thing students often get told is that their writing is “repetitive,” and they come away with the conviction that all repetition is bad.

It isn’t. As a rhetorician (someone who studies the ways that language influences us), I know that repetition can be a powerful way of emphasizing a point.

Emphasizing key words throughout an essay or story can serve to underline an important theme.

And repetition can enhance the mood of a given work.

The key is that the repetition has to be purposeful–accidental repetition is the sign of sloppy writing (hence the warnings against “repetitive” work). But repeating key words and phrases to drive home a point or meaning can be tremendously effective.

Take, for example, this passage from Ann Dee Ellis’ lovely The End or Something Like It. In it, the main character, Emmy, has woken up early on the morning of the one-year anniversary of her best friend’s death, and has gone outside to watch the sunrise.

There was a bird.
Another bird.
The sky was gray and no one was out except for an old lady with a dog that barked at me and the lady said shut up, and three more birds.

Today is the day my best friend died.

Today is the day my best friend died.

Today is the day my best friend died.

The sky slowly turned to pink with purples and blues and oranges.
It seemed like it shouldn’t be so beautiful.

Ellis uses repetition to powerful effect here. First, the repeated image of the bird, which is something a fourteen-year-old might notice and track to keep her mind off of things. But then, the powerful, cumulative effect of that sentence: Today is the day my best friend died. By the time she got to the third repetition, my heart ached for Emmy. The simple, mostly single-syllable words helped punctuate the sentence–each work a sharp, shocking reminder of loss.

When have you used repetition in your own writing? When has repetition moved you in the writing of others? What value do you see (or not see) in repetition?

Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is coming Spring 2017 from Knopf. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.