The kind of repetition most writers worry about is simply saying the same word or phrase too often in a sentence, paragraph, or essay. They find every instance of that word, see that there are 20 of them, and look to the thesaurus. That’s usually a bad idea, and often this type of repetition isn’t actually a problem. If you’re talking about the purity movement making references to Jane Austen, it’s a good bet you’ll say “purity movement” pretty often. It will only confuse your reader if you change some of the instances to “chastity crusade” or “virginity enterprise.”
The real problem with repetition is when it becomes redundancy: unnecessary repetition. Redundancy and wordiness are usually the result of writers feeling like they need to sound more educated or “smart” in an essay; they believe that using too many words to say something is just what writers do. Sometimes wordiness and redundancy are simply the result of a writer trying to “fluff up” an essay in order to meet a word count. Either way, it’s never really worth it. Too much redundancy and wordiness makes your writing awkward, confusing, and unsophisticated. 1
Here are some examples of this common writing weakness:
The teacher of a prep school at Vermont whose name is Melissa Jenkins has been killed by two partners claiming to be husband and wife; their names are Allen and Patricia Prue, and both of them say they didn’t do the crime, which really makes me think. Now, long sentences are okay (and you’ll notice this one isn’t even a run-on), but they have to be long by necessity and they need to help their reader along with punctuation and phrasing. This sentence just trips over its unnecessary prepositions and pronouns (of a prep school, at Vermont, whose name is). We could snip quite a lot of this sentence out without losing any content: Melissa Jenkins, a Vermont prep school teacher, was allegedly killed by husband and wife Allen and Patricia Prue, who deny responsibility. Notice how much easier that is to read, without all the prepositions cluttering up the description of the teacher or the couple. The last bit of redundancy here is the phrase “which really makes me think.” It’s so vague it doesn’t mean anything, and so is simply wordy.
Because of our current recession, the economy and money matters are forefront in most political races. This is probably the most common form of redundancy in college student writing. In this example, the writer simply rewords what they mean and repeats it. In this sentence “the economy” and “money matters” mean the same thing; our writer might as well have written “the economy and the economy are forefront.” When you find yourself listing items in a sentence, make sure that they are actually different items, and not simply the same concept reworded.
On the date of August 28th 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech that brought different nationalities together in the hope to stop discrimination and live equally in peace no matter what color you were. There’s some awkward phrasing in this sentence, too, but this is mostly the result of the wordiness, since when a sentence is long and rambling, it’s easier for the writer to forget what was happening in the beginning of their sentence. Most people notice the unnecessary “on the date of August 28th 1963,” which is indeed redundant. If you tell us the date, you don’t need to preface it with “on the date of.” But the worst redundancy here is in the last part of the sentence: “in the hope to stop discrimination and live equally in peace no matter what color you were.” Those two items are rephrasing the same idea. In this context, allowing people of color to live peaceably and stopping discrimination are the same thing. We only need one in this sentence, and I would suggest the less wordy, awkward one: On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech that brought different races together in the hope to stop discrimination. 2
The part where I wrote “strong” in the second phrase was to show an image for strong. It’s to represent strong on the button. I want people to get the idea that they have to be a very strong person. They have to strongly believe in their beliefs or dreams. Most of all they must be strong and believe in their own personality! It may seem obvious what the problem here is; the writer uses the word “strong” too often, right? But the real issue is not the vocabulary choice, it’s that the writer literally repeats herself (slightly rephrased) multiple times. The first and second sentence say the same thing: She used the word “strong” so her reader would think of strength. The last three sentences are also saying the same thing: She wants her reader to feel compelled to be a strong person of conviction. These two statements are all that are expressed in five sentences. Had she used the word “strong” just as often, but actually said something new in each sentence, it would be a much stronger paragraph.
There’s a reason redundancy is such a common issue in writing; redundancy plays an essential role in language use. We repeat ourselves in speech and writing because human brains cannot process every single word when listening or reading. So when something is important, we instinctively repeat it, rephrased or not. Take this instinct and combine it with a confusing subject, a word count minimum, or a deadline, and you’ve got a formula for wordy, repetitive essays. As a writer, it’s a good idea to repeat main ideas, particularly in long essays, but you’ll definitely want to avoid repeating a phrase, concept, or idea in the same sentence and usually in the same paragraphs. Use your instinct when it comes to repeating words; read the essay aloud and see if it sounds awkward. If it sounds alright to you, it probably is, even if you used the word “strong” 15 times.
Another strategy for fixing this issue is to throw away any ideas you have about what you are supposed to sound like as a writer, particularly if you are a student. There is no one right way to write like an academic or an intellectual. You need to find your own voice, then polish and perfect it. You’ll learn by reading in your field how to write like an academic in your field; don’t rush that process.
Return to Common Writing Weaknesses.
Written by Courtney Stoker
- However, even experienced writers have to watch out for this weakness. After first publishing this page, I had to go through and edit out at least two instances of word clutter and repetition. ↩
- This student used the word “nationalities” here, but it wasn’t what he meant. King’s audience was mostly Americans, who have the same nationality. You can read more about imprecise word choice here. ↩