How to handle repetition… without repeating yourself

Rows of chairs with the same number repeated

Do you remember the 1980s BBC sitcom, Allo ‘Allo! ?

Set in Second World War France, it was a gloriously silly parody of uber-drab 1970s drama, Secret Army, about the Resistance working to get British soldiers out of the country to safety.

‘Allo ‘Allo!’s secret agent, Louise, always entered a scene covertly to reveal key intelligence with this line:

‘Leesen verry carefully, I shall say zis only wance!’

‘Allo ‘Allo! was replete with corny catchphrases that still amuse to this day… but she has a point.

When we’re writing, we’re aiming for impact. We want our audience to sit up, take notice and absorb what we’re saying. Preferably so we don’t have to say it again!

But sometimes we need to, for two reasons:

  1. to emphasise an important point
  2. to make the same point in a different context

At sentence and paragraph level, the key to handling repetition effectively is to avoid overdoing it.

Overemphasis risks hammering the point home
The problem that overemphasis presents is that it can read as hectoring the audience, irritating and even disengaging them completely.

If we’re writing a how-to book, it’s important to keep them with us: we really don’t want them to abandon it (or worse still, leave a negative review).

Here, it can be useful to ask ourselves:

  • Am I placing myself above my reader, rather than addressing them as intelligent equals?
  • Am I teaching and using language of the classroom, instead of being an expert companion and guiding them through a topic or point?
  • Am I venting personal frustration over a point – maybe even fixated on it?

And significantly, is the amount of repetition indicating that there isn’t enough material to meet the intention and length of the project?

This is important too, because if we are finding ourselves simply repeating the same points over and again, it may well be that we need to expand our range, whether in terms of angle or topics.

In this scenario, adjusting tone and going back to the drawing board to research usually helps to present and vary the content comfortably.

Making the same point in a different context is fine
The ideal way to do this is to call back to the previous incidence, and acknowledge the repetition at this juncture:

‘As mentioned previously…’

‘As we saw in Chapter X…’

– and rephrase the point.

Above all, keep it short. There’s no need to go into detail all over again, as the reader will have already assimilated that information. Usually, the callback is enough to jog their memory, they will know what’s being referred to.

Pet phrases
Every author has words or phrases they love or fall back on. This can vary wildly between writers, but the key thing is to recognise how, when and where it happens, and eliminate it if overused.

It’s fine to employ your favourite phrases once or twice, but over the course of a whole manuscript it can become noticeable.

To help with this, make a thesaurus your friend and consciously work on other ways to convey the same thing. This challenges you to expand your descriptive range; and if you aren’t a natural writer, it’ll help you to improve and hone your craft.

Don’t cut and paste
The one repetition crime never to commit, is cutting and pasting text to appear somewhere else in a script. It’s glaringly obvious to readers when it happens, and presents as lazy work.

Do be sure not to dot the same sentences or paragraphs around your manuscript, in the hope that it won’t be noticed – it will, and readers won’t be pleased about it. Why? Because they’re paying good money for your book, and don’t appreciate content that’s been phoned in.

This is particularly important if you have a book deal: the copy-editor will have been briefed by your publisher to weed out this kind of content, and query it.

Granted, repetition isn’t always easy to spot in our own work – especially when we’ve spent weeks or months writing solidly, and reached the stage where we can’t see the wood for the trees!

It’s understandable we might miss some of it, or be unaware that we’re going over the same ground.

A good editor can help with this: we can guide you and your content to ensure it’s box fresh for your audience.

…And says things only once!


For more handy writing tips, check out my free mini-guides!

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