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Posted, Sep. 29, 2004
Updated, Sep. 29, 2004


QuickLink: A71165

Writing Tool #25: Repeat
Purposeful repetition is not redundancy.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Use repetition to chain parts of a story together.

Repetition works in stories, but only if you intend it. The repetition of key words, phrases, and story elements creates a rhythm, a pace, a structure, a drumbeat that reinforces the central theme of the work.

Such repetition works in music, in advertising, in humor, in literature, in political speech and rhetoric, in teaching, in homilies, in parental lectures -- even in this sentence, where the word 'in' was used 10 times.

Writers use repetition as a tool of persuasion, few as skillfully as Michael Gartner, who, in a distinguished and varied journalism career, won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

Consider this excerpt from "Tattoos and Freedom":

Let's talk about tattoos.

We haven't seen the arms of Jackson Warren, the food-service worker at Iowa State University, but they do sound repulsive. A swastika on one, KKK on the other.

Ugh.

That's obnoxious.

The administrators at the university think so, too, so in response to a student's complaint they've "temporarily reassigned" Warren to a job where he won't be in contact with the general public.

Ugh.

That's outrageous.

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Gartner's repetition of "ugh" and "That's obnoxious./ That's outrageous" frame the argument for protection of free speech, even when that speech is expressed in such a despicable way.

Remember the flag burners in Texas? The Nazi marchers in Skokie? The war protesters everywhere? Protected citizens, one and all. Obnoxious, sometimes. Outrageous, sometimes. Despicable, sometimes.

But never unspeakable.


The pattern throughout is repetition, repetition, repetition, flavored by variation. At the end of the editorial, Gartner answers the question of "what message" the presence of the tattoo man sends to students on campus, many of whom would find the tattoos repugnant:

The message you're giving is clear:

This is a school that believes in free speech.
This is a school that protects dissent.
This is a school that cherishes America.
That's what Iowa State officials should be saying.
For Jackson Warren, bedecked in symbols of hate, should himself be a symbol of freedom.

As we've seen in a previous tool, the number of repetitions has meaning. Three gives us a sense of the whole ("This is a school..."), while two creates comparison and contrast, symbols of hate vs. symbol of freedom.

Gartner takes his pattern of repetition to a comic level in an editorial urging donations to the local public radio station.

Give some money to WOI radio.

We don't often shill for things on these pages, but when we do we're blunt about it and go all out.

Give some money to WOI radio.

The body of the editorial contains eight paragraphs, each containing an argument in favor of giving, and each ending with the "money" sentence: Give some money to WOI radio.

Gartner adds a twist at the end:

You probably thought you could guess the last line of this editorial. But if you didn't get the message by now, one more pitch won't make a difference. So instead of saying give some money to WOI radio, we'll just say:

Thanks for listening.

For Gartner, repetition is never accidental. "It's the refrain," he told Poynter's Chip Scanlan, "…the rhythmic refrain with a different tag on it each time. It's almost a musical device. I love Broadway musicals and have always thought I could write a musical. Couldn't write the music, but I could write the lyrics because I like word play and rhymes, rhythms, and beats, and cadences. Sometimes I think these editorials are the lyrics to a song that has never been written."

In the hands of master teachers or poets, repetition has a power transcending the rhetorical, ascending to the level of myth and scripture. These words, for example, from the book "Night" by Elie Wiesel are emblazoned on a wall of The United States Holocaust Museum:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

Repetition can be so powerful, in fact, that it can threaten to call attention to itself, overshadowing the message of the story. If you're worried about too much repetition, apply this little test. Delete all the repetition and read the passage aloud without it. Repeat the key element once. Repeat it again. Your voice will let you know when you've gone too far.

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Workbench:

1. Understand the difference between repetition and redundancy. The first is useful, designed to create a specific effect. The latter is useless, words wasted. Read several examples of your own work, looking for examples of both repetition and redundancy. What happens to your prose when you eliminate redundancy but reinforce repetition?

2. Look through an anthology of historical speeches and read it with an eye toward repetition. Make a list of the reasons the authors use repetition, starting with: to help us remember, to build an argument, to underscore emotion.

3. Try re-writing the passage by Elie Wiesel above. For the sake of the exercise, eliminate as many uses of the word "never" as you can without altering the meaning. Now read both the original version and your revision aloud. Discuss what you've discovered.

4. Repetition in a story does not have to be highly rhetorical. For example, you can mention or quote a character three times in a story, at the beginning, in the middle, and near the end, to chain the elements together. Look for cases of this style of repetition in news stories. 


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