Writing Good Sentences, Part 2

“You don’t write because you want to say something: You write because you’ve got something to say.”” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Note-Books

When we talked about writing good sentences last week, we discussed some of the fundamentals – length and structure, mostly. Today, I’d like to talk about another, perhaps more subtle, rhetorical device you can use to make your sentences stronger: repetition.

(Again, some of the following suggestions (and most of the examples) come from a very good little book by Bruce Ross-Larson of the American Writing Institute called “Stunning Sentences.”)

1. Used carefully, repetition can give your sentences rhythm and power. When you repeat a word or phrase, you give it more weight in your reader’s mind. This may cause him to dwell longer on its meaning.

Example: However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement.

Isn’t that a nice sentence? The choice of “monstrous” is great because it entirely changes the feeling of the word “masterpiece,” and its repetition creates a strong contrast between “eye” and “mind,” one the reader cannot easily bypass.

2. You can also repeat the root of a word to achieve a similar effect.

Example: It was a dramatic, not to say melodramatic, story.

Here the repetition of “dramatic” emphasizes the point that the story was full of life and emotion, but not (as people often say today) over the top. By repeating the root word in “melodrama,” this complex thought is expressed quickly and with added power.

3. You can repeat a prefix or suffix to give your sentence a desired pace and to force your reader to think about the relationship between two words or ideas.

Example: Acts of charity have about them a whiff of sanctity.

By using the simple power of repetition (with “charity” and “sanctity”), this little gem of a sentence brings the reader’s attention to the intended irony: how a supposedly good act can be accompanied by a bad feeling. I can’t imagine a more elegant way of saying this, can you?

4. You can repeat prepositions to give your sentence tempo and provide your reader with an easy way to remember the elements you are talking about.

Example: To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time.

Be cautious when repeating prepositions. Since this is probably the easiest way to use repetition, it is the most common. If you use it too much, your writing will seem amateurish.

5. Alliteration is the repetition of a sound at the beginning of two or more words in a sentence. Like the repetition of prepositions, it can make your sentences stronger or weaker depending on how often and how well you use it.

Example: Does the quaint quality of quondam make you quiver?

You are dying to find out what “quondam” means, aren’t you? That’s the power of this type of repetition.