Remember your fifth grade “What I did on my summer vacation” paper, where you used the words “pool,” “baseball” and “bike” 100 times apiece? And your English teacher dutifully marked your paper up with her red pen. Redundant. Don’t repeat yourself. Choose a new word.
Bloggers sometimes get so fearful about repeating ourselves that our message can get completely lost. The truth is, after fifth grade is over, there are times when you want to repeat yourself to make sure your point comes across. Here’s how you can tell if your content could benefit from a little strategic repetition.
Repeat for clarity
Like it or not, your readers skim. No matter how clearly you expressed yourself the first time, your words may literally not have been seen.
Remember that your content needs to cut through your reader’s dense fog of information clutter, chronic interruption, and recurring fantasies about the hottie three cubicles down. If it’s important, it’s worth repeating. You might also want to call attention to your point with special formatting or at least a subhead.
Repeat for certainty
It’s nice to think that our readers etch everything we write into their brains. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way.
To prove this to yourself, go through some of your old bookmarks on Delicious.com. You’ll find terrific, well-written, memorable stuff that you don’t remember ever having read. (Sometimes you find things that you don’t remember having written, which is even weirder.) They made a big impression on you at the time, but then they sank back into the murk of your memory.
Don’t assume your readers got it the first time, or that they still remember it. If you have a powerful or important idea, hit your audience with it more than once.
Different readers also respond to different ways of expressing the same concept. You might write a dozen posts on a key theme, each using a different metaphor. The reader who gets your big idea when you compared it to circus clowns may have been totally in the dark when you contrasted it with Britney Spears’ parenting skills.
Whether you’re speaking to new readers or old hands, it makes sense to repeat key messages every few months or so. Each time you do, you’ll fix those concepts a little more firmly in your readers’ minds. You’ll also find that your thinking gets deeper and richer each time you revisit an important theme.
And don’t forget to link back to your own cornerstone content, so new readers can benefit from the brilliant stuff you’ve already created.
Repeat for comic effect
A running joke can bond readers to you in surprisingly strong ways. It’s the basis of sitcoms, where familiarity with the characters and their (usually stupid) catch phrases becomes deliciously comforting. When Homer says “D’oh!” and Bart follows with “Ay, Caramba!” we aren’t bored, we’re happy.
Consider LOLCats. For most of us, these are patently unfunny the first time we see them. They might cause a (very) mild twitch the second time. But if for some strange reason we get exposed to 15 or 20, a switch gets flipped and suddenly they’re hysterical. And once your brain is wired for the joke, you find yourself saying “Oh Hai!” and “nom nom nom” to your friends until they’re ready to lock you in a closet just to get you to shut up.
The last time I checked, icanhascheezburger.com was #9 in the Technorati top 100, beating out Mashable, Seth’s Blog and yes, even Copyblogger. Recurring jokes, special language and motifs can create a strangely powerful sense of connection for your readers. Ignore the power of the running joke at your peril.
Repeat for poetry
Sometimes you need a little repetition for the music of your piece. Can you imagine Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream marked up by that fifth grade English teacher? The majestic, ringing repetition of “I have a dream” would have been tweaked into “I have a hope,” “I have a fantasy,” and “I have a realistic nocturnal virtual reality event.”
Now most of us aren’t writing at Dr. King’s level, but sometimes your ear will tell you to include some repetition to make your writing swing. Read it aloud, and if you think it works, leave it in.
How much is too much?
This is definitely a technique that can be overused. Repetition works best for calls to action, for content that meets very primal needs (like funny pictures of cats, or porn), and complicated or difficult-to-implement ideas. It doesn’t work especially well for advice we’ve all read a million times, unless you have a cool new way to present it.
And strategic repetition isn’t the same thing as content flab. Repeat yourself for a reason, not just because you’re too lazy to cut pointless redundancy.
Pushing yourself to come up with something entirely new and different every day can lead to a walloping case of writer’s block. Maybe worse, constantly searching for something new can make your content a little shallow.
Don’t be afraid to go deeper, to return to new explorations of the same themes. You may find your message hitting the mark in a whole new way.