Repetition, repetition and repetition

I thought I'd do an occasional blog on 'how to write well'. Here's the first one

Repetition is one of the things we look to sort out when editing a text.

Repetition soon bores the reader (it’s probably already beginning to do that – so if I were editing the first sentence of this paragraph, I’d remove the R-word and simply say ‘It soon bores…’)

How do you avoid it? Don’t bother when you start writing something. Just get the thoughts down. It’s at the editing stage that you weed out repetition. Can you replace the repeated word with a pronoun (this, she, his etc.)? Can you rephrase the sentence? Can you find another word or phrase that means the same thing (English is a very rich language)?

These fixes have their pitfalls, of course. Pronouns must be unambiguous – the reader must know, with total clarity, who or what every pronoun in a piece of text refers to. If the reader doesn’t know, then the writer has just climbed out of one hole (repetition) into another (lack of clarity). Rephrasing can damage flow. And finding synonyms can look forced. Sports reporters often seem to fall into this trap – “Everton scored first. After half time, however, the Toffees found themselves pushed back on the defensive. Then suddenly the Goodison-based club scored against the run of play…”

Sometimes, of course, repetition is powerful. It can work in a more literary context: the kind of writing I’m talking about here is informative, not poetic. It works well in oratory. We (or those of us old enough!) remember Tony Blair’s ‘education, education and education’. Listen to Winston Churchill promising to fight on the beaches. Here, repetition is used to dramatic effect, and works.

As always in writing, in the end it is a matter of judgement. Repeat if you really think a point needs pounding home. Repeat if there is no other way of making your point totally clear. But most of the ti


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