Repetition in essays

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1. There are two types of repetition which you should try to avoid in essays:

  • ideas or arguments
  • important words or phrases

2. Repeating ideas or arguments suggests that you have not thought enough about the question and its implications. You are not offering enough substance in your response.

3. The solution to this problem is to generate more ideas at the planning stage. A well-constructed plan will help you to avoid duplicating your arguments – because you should be able to see the topic defined in your notes.

4. The repetition of words and phrases is a trickier issue. Many questions will obviously call for topics to be named in the course of your discussion. However, you should avoid the irritating effect caused by excessive repetition – especially of key terms or specialist vocabulary.

5. Avoid the excessive repetition of any important or key terms from the essay question in the body of your essay. Unless the nature of the topic makes it impossible to do so, try to find other way of expressing the central idea of the question. This will also demonstrate that you have understood it, and it will add variety to your expression.

6. Repeating the exact words of the question in the introduction to an essay is a very common weakness. Avoid this approach: it creates a very lame effect. A much better strategy is to show that you understand the question by ‘translating’ it into your own terms.

7. The same is sometimes true of conclusions. An exact repetition of the question (especially if you have also used it in the introduction) creates a weak and disappointing effect.

8. If you are tempted to repeat words or phrases, there are two general solutions to the problem:

  • re-phrase the concept in your own words
  • use a thesaurus – either a book, or the one in your word-processor

9. If you use a thesaurus, take care to choose a near-synonym from the same subject area and not another field of meaning altogether. For example, in an essay on educational policy where you wish to avoid repeating the term ‘education’, it would be no good choosing the terms ‘nurture’ or ‘care’ just because they are listed. These belong to the sphere of child-rearing. You might however choose ‘pedagogic’ or ‘academic’.

10. The converse of this strategy is to rephrase the concept. Demonstrate your understanding of the question by putting it into your own words. This not only avoids the boring effect of repetition, it also demonstrates to your tutor that you have grasped the subject concerned.

11. In an essay which deals predominantly with one thing or person, there is no need to keep repeating the name. For instance, instead of ‘Othello says … then Othello tries … and Othello’s speeches show …’ you can simply use ‘he’ or ‘his’ after the first mention of the name. So long as you do not introduce another name or topic, it should be clear to the reader that you are still referring to the same thing or person.

12. Alternatively, in such an essay, you might use terms such as ‘the hero … the protagonist … the Moor’. However, this approach should be handled with great care, as it can easily seem mannered and pretentious.

13. Keep in mind the general subject of your essay and the context in which its details are being discussed. You cannot simply pluck words from a dictionary or a thesaurus and use them as if they all had the same value.

14. Writers who lack experience often begin successive sentences with the same words instead of finding some form of substitute or variation. Rigorous editing and re-writing are answers to this problem. The following [weak] example is taken from what is otherwise a competent essay in literary studies.

To J C Ballard, the history that emerges from Empire of the Sun is not there merely to provide background or local colour. Empire of the Sun assumes that the reader has some knowledge of its historical content. The novel assumes that the reader has some knowledge ofAsiatic history …

16. This could have been improved by avoiding the second mention of the novel’s title and deleting the phrase which follows it, since it is repeated in the next sentence:

To J C Ballard, the history that emerges from Empire of the Sun is not there merely to provide background or local colour. The novel assumes that the reader has some knowledge of its context in Asiatic history …

© Roy Johnson 2003

Writing skills links

repetition Tutorials, guides, and books, on writing skills

Red button Writing skills – a bibliography

Red button Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

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2 Responses to “Repetition in essays”

  1. Nikki says:

    These are some great tips! I want to add one more advice to make essays original. Just forgot about cliche. Most essays have overused phases like “It is interesting to note that…”, “In conclusion…”, “In sum…” or “In closing…”. These words only point out the obvious and make essays boring.

  2. Roy Johnson says:

    I think you mean AVOID cliche – and it’s true that any padding or unnecessary signposting should be removed when editing your work. But you DO need to indicate the STRUCTURE of your essay – to guide the reader’s understanding of your argument.

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