Repetition in writing: why it happens, what it means, and how to fix it

Every editor has had this experience: deep into a manuscript, you find yourself reading a familiar passage. Sure enough, it duplicates content that was earlier in the manuscript. Don’t just delete it. Ask yourself why it’s there, and use that knowledge to make the manuscript better.

Why writers repeat themselves

All writers repeat information in nonfiction. Yup. Everyone repeats information. They repeat themselves. Pretty annoying, don’t you think?

Let’s say an author is writing a book on marketing. That author may have a heartfelt belief that it’s essential to measure the impact of emails — that’s sort of an idée fixe for the author.

The author may then, unconsciously, write about how to measure the impact of emails in multiple places. You read about it in the section on emails, then in the section on measurement, then in the section on how to attribute value to various marketing strategies.

Sometimes the author recollects having mentioned it before, and writes, “As I mentioned earlier” — and then repeats the same content.

This stuff drives readers crazy. The editor needs to flag and fix it.

But why does the writer do it?

The reason is frequently one or more of the following:

  • The author has an idea they frequently like to reference.
  • The author is writing in stream of consciousness, rather than following an organized plan.
  • It’s not clear where the idea belongs, so it ends up in multiple places.
  • The problematic organization of the manuscript makes it unclear where the idea best belongs, so pieces of it appear in different places.

There are three approaches to correcting repetition:

  1. Ignore it.
  2. Delete all but one instance.
  3. Reorganize the manuscript to eliminate the repetition.

Ignoring repetition is always the wrong approach

You could just leave the repeated passage in, or put a little “Once again,” in front of it.

This is a big mistake.

Readers annoyed at reading repeated content will stop reading. As a writer, you not only lose the ability to retain their attention, you replace it with resentment.

You may also be missing warning signs about deeper problems in the manuscript.

So don’t ignore the problem.

Delete and combine is the simplest approach

If the problem is just one repeated idea or passage, the solution is to determine where best to include it.

Look at the repeated passages. Bring them all together in a separate document. Identify the best sentences and phrases and facts, and assemble them into a single passage. Put that passage where it seems to fit best (often, the place where you introduce the idea).

In the other places, include a cross reference: “The justification is the Peter Principle, as I described in Chapter 2.”

Eliminating repetition in this way makes manuscripts shorter. That’s a good thing; fewer words means more impact.

If repetition recurs, consider reorganizing the manuscript

Sometimes, with a given manuscript organization, it’s hard to determine one place to put an idea. You might describe the idea in Chapter 2, explain how it applies to a given problem in Chapter 3, and show how it is an example of a larger idea in Chapter 7.

That’s fine. Just look at all those examples and make sure you’re not repeating exactly the same content. Build on earlier content create new insights in later content.

But if you find repetition all over the manuscript, it may be that your organization is wrong.

In the example of the marketing book I cited earlier, maybe there should be a chapter on email that describes all the ways to craft it, deploy it, and measure its impact. Perhaps the manuscript should be organized around channels (email, Web ads, social media, and so on) rather than being organized around stages (conceive, deploy, measure, adjust).

These are hard problems to solve. You’re basically looking at a two-dimensional table and deciding whether to organize your writing by rows or by columns. It’s even more challenging if there are more than two dimensions.

To decide if reorganizing is worth it, actually create that table and fill it in with ideas. You’ll soon see whether you can even go forward with rearranging the content.

The idea of reorganizing the content may seem intimidating. But in my experience, dreading it is far worse than actually doing it. You’d be amazed how quickly you can move around existing content and glue it together in a new way.

If repetition is telling you that your manuscript’s organization is flawed, put in the time to figure out why. Don’t ignore the warning signs. Because if you can fix them with a new organization, your book will not only be shorter, it will be easier to understand and remember.

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One Comment

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