If you are writing a book, you’ve probably been told more than once: “Be concise. Avoid repetition.”
Often that’s true. But there are times when repetition is vital to your reader’s successful journey through your book. It’s important to know when repetition is a good thing, and that means seeing your book through your reader’s eyes.
Where Does Repetition Come From?
It’s normal to find repetition in the first few drafts of a book manuscript. In the excitement of unfolding your topic for your reader, you may repeat things or explain too much. Or you might introduce a new angle, tie it back to something you said earlier, and elaborate too much. You end up with unnecessary repetition that needs to be edited.
As you write your first draft, you may need to fully write out a process or a thought, in all of its details, so you can capture it on paper. And then whittle it down as you self-edit.
As you are adding layers to your manuscript on your second or third draft, you may forget that you already explained something. As you self-edit, you will notice those repeats and find a way to consolidate. If you discover you have discussed the same thing twice, you can figure out the best place to leave it in, or find a way to weave parts of it into each place.
That’s all part of the editing process.
Repetition Can Be Good for Your Reader’s Journey
However, repetition is not all bad. Sometimes, especially in a piece of writing as long and complex as a book, repetition is a good thing, a necessary part of your reader’s journey.
As you read through your manuscript, put yourself in your reader’s head and imagine you know nothing about your topic. Are there key concepts the reader might need to hear twice, so they can really get it?
Does your book reveal information in later chapters where the reader needs to make a connection with something they read earlier? Do you share insights or terms that will be so new for your reader that they will need reminding later on?
In those situations, repetition will help greatly.
You don’t want your repetition to belabor the point or to be word-for-word repeated. You also don’t want to insult your reader’s intelligence by over-explaining. But you can find subtle ways to give your reader a reminder or help them connect new insights with points made in earlier chapters. You can also craft that earlier material in a way that’s easier for your reader to track it later on.
Where Do You Need to Remind Your Reader?
The best thing you can do is have someone who is unfamiliar with your topic read your book manuscript all the way through. Ask them to mark any places where they feel that you are introducing something for the first time and acting as if they already know what you are talking about. You will never have such a great opportunity to follow your reader’s journey as you will in asking someone to comment on their very first read through your manuscript.
If your book is a novel, does a character or a name seem to appear out of nowhere on page 172? Even if you introduced that character earlier, did your reader see it on page 172 as if for the first time, and wonder, “Where did this character come from?”
If you are writing nonfiction and referring to a concept on page 98, you need to know if your reader missed where you first introduced that topic on page 5.
When you introduce a complex story or new information to your reader early in the book, they might not remember it all by page 125, unless you remind them or lay out a trail of tidbits to help them follow and track. While it may be a writer’s dream to hear a reader say they stayed up all night to finish the book, reality is that days, if not weeks may pass before a reader finishes a book. And they won’t necessarily remember everything you revealed to them at the beginning.
How a Manuscript Reader Can Help
When you have someone read your book manuscript and mark it every time they say, “What does this mean?” or “Who is this character?” those markups will help you know where you need to embellish or remind.
I recently read a novel manuscript where the seasonal setting became important toward the end of the book. It caught me off guard.
When I re-read the manuscript a second time, I realized the writer had identified the seasonal setting in subtle ways, but not enough to draw my attention. I recommended that the writer strengthen the first two seasonal references to cement them in the reader’s mind. Then the reader could track the rest of the references and not be caught off guard later on, when the season became more vital to the plot.
In the opening chapter of a nonfiction book manuscript I read recently, the writer introduced health-related terms I wasn’t familiar with it. When I arrived at a later chapter, the author’s discussion of a topic assumed I remembered what those terms meant. I had to go back to the beginning and try to find where I first saw those concepts. That’s not something you want your reader to do. You want them to stay engaged with the book right where they are.
I recommended that the author give a brief reminder, later in the book, of the terms they had introduced earlier, so I could understand what they were talking about in those later sections. The author didn’t need an elaborate repetition, just enough to remind me of what was introduced earlier. I also pointed out a few places along the way where the author could reiterate my understanding of those terms when introducing a related insight or connection.
This is why I recommend having several people, who don’t know your topic or your story, read your book manuscript with fresh eyes and mark any places where they are confused or where something seems to be introduced out of the blue. You never get another first read, and that is your best opportunity to identify places where repetition is needed to give your reader an amazing experience.