A photograph of the “Double O” rock arch in the Utah desert

Source: Double O Arch-Arches NP-Utah, Tobias Alt, Wikimedia

During revision, we can add transitional words and phrases to our writing to help readers understand our meaning more clearly and make connections between one part and another more easily. There is, however, another way to bring clarity and connection to our writing. Look at the following passage from Edward Abbey’s book Desert Solitude. What do you notice about the words in bold?

A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.

Let’s compare the original with a version that avoids all the repetition:

A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a globe which surrounds and sustains the little planet of men as sea and sky encircle and support a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child notices, a sphere of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is amazing, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.


A photograph of a woman, her back to the camera, seated and leaning back on a boulder looking over a valley of red mesas and peaks, desert shrubs, and mountains which appear dark in the distance

Source: Sedona Cathedral Rock Hiking, chuck-reynolds, Flickr

If you read the two versions out loud (you should try it!), you will certainly find that the first version using repetition is much easier to understand and much more powerful in communicating its meaning. Key words in a piece of writing can both connect and clarify the meaning. They are just as important in helping a reader understand and feel the impact of your meaning as transitional words and phrases.

Of course, this does not mean that repetition always makes your writing better. Look at the following passage and choose whether to repeat or vary the word usage in each case.

icon for interactive exercise

There is no rule for choosing when to repeat key words and when to vary your vocabulary. The way to decide about this will always be to test the words against your ear: You have to read your writing out loud to do this.

The important thing to realize is that repetition is not always a bad thing. In fact, repetition can be one of the strongest rhetorical strategies that you have available. By using transitional words and phrases and the repetition of key words, you will help your reader understand your meaning. You will also give your reader the pleasure of feeling that meaning expressed with power and clarity.