Repetition vs Reiteration:
Show your reader what’s important without boring them to death
How many of you can remember specific information after hearing or reading it only once? How about if I asked you about that information again next week? Next month? Two years from now?
A select few people on earth may have perfect total recall, but most of us don’t. We remember information from hearing or reading about it multiple times. This is the principle behind regular rotation on a radio playlist, behind advertising, and the power behind an article that goes viral on the internet.
The same principle goes for your book. Chances are, you need to spell out a lot more information than you think, and you have more opportunities to highlight plot points than you realize. The key to achieving this is to understand the difference between repetition and reiteration.
Straight repetition is boring
My favorite example is the scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the Economics teacher, played by Ben Stein, drones on without inflection and the camera pans to show students falling asleep.
Repetition is the act of doing or saying the same thing the same way, with no variation, more than once. Repetition is what a Xerox machine does. Repetition is boring, and boring is a death knell for your book.
Reiteration is to say again—and you can say something again, but differently. Think of different actors playing from the same script. Tone and emphasis play a large role in avoiding repetition.
You can also use different words to talk about a topic in a new way. What you want to repeat is the ideas and the themes, not the words you use to describe them. Avoid boredom. Vary your phrasing. Look in the thesaurus for synonyms and turns of phrase that can help you express your ideas or describe your scene in a fresh way.
If you are writing nonfiction, reiteration of key ideas and themes builds the structure of your book. This is the backbone of everything you say. You literally cannot create a coherent narrative without reiterating.
You cannot expect your readers to remember every facet of your first chapter as they progress to the last one. Also, reiteration is a key component of creating good transitions. Think of how much more elegant it is to lead your reader from one idea to the next, rather than air-drop them into a new topic without creating a frame of reference for them. Ideas without explicit links are an outline. You want a book.
If you are writing fiction, reiteration works for you as an echo mechanism. You can use it for character development and plot structure. Think about this for a minute. The artful use of description, your character’s way of talking, what you choose to emphasize in a scene because you mention it, all build upon themselves simply by virtue of showing up more than once.
Consider the lightning scar on Harry Potter’s forehead, or the way Marie-Laure develops the world around her in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See—the smells, the textures. We see what she cannot and that becomes part of the story. Harry Potter is marked and that is part of the story.
You’re not being as repetitive as you think you are
Authors are sensitive to talking down to their readers. This is a healthy and respectful concern. On the other hand, most of the time you are being much less “obvious” than you think you are.
When we read material we are intimately familiar with, we read what we expect to be there rather than what is there. Your brain is fooling you.
Test this by having someone else read your book—an editor, beta readers—and/or by setting aside your manuscript for a month and then coming back to it. The gaps that you and your readers discover may surprise you.
The bottom line
Repetition is boring, but the strategic use of reiteration is the glue that holds your book together. Use this tool to develop characters and remind your readers of important information. When in doubt, lay it on thicker than you are comfortable with, and revisit your manuscript after a period of time with the help of an editor or outside readers. Don’t be a Xerox machine, but avoid being so self-involved that you forget your reader.