written by Bryan Hutchinson
Every writer fears the dreaded complaints about being too repetitive.
“I thought the book was great, but the author tended to repeat herself.” – “Fantastic information, but too much repetition!” – “The author is a moron, kept repeating the same lesson over and over―I got it the first time. WTF!”
In non-fiction, which this post focuses on, and in some fiction, there is a tension between repeating something too much or too little, and as writers, we must master this skill if we are to use it in the powerful, necessary way intended.
If readers do not learn from your book or article it might not be that you didn’t teach your point well enough the first time. No, the real problem could be that you didn’t teach your point enough.
Repetition is vital in the learning process because that’s the way the human brain learns and stores memories.
Repetition is a necessity
Let me say it again, repetition is a necessity.
In our fast-paced world, we are so busy that we can’t stand repetition, we simply don’t have the time for it (we say), and yet we wonder why so many talents and skills are being lost.
It’s because people don’t want to be bothered to take the time to learn something the right way. They can’t be bothered to take the necessary amount of time needed to master their talents. Welcome to the 21st century where everything is supposed to be instant. It’s just too bad the human brain hasn’t caught up.
Without repetition, there can be no mastery
Often, when people complain about repetition it is because they believe they “got it” the first time.
The brain simply isn’t a one and done machine. When we treat it like it is we forget lessons, we fail tests, and we never truly master any skills.
Imagine your favorite song without its chorus.
Now you know the reason why one-night-stands are so regrettable, unless it was with the entirely wrong person it’s because we want to repeat such a fantastic experience.
See, repetition isn’t always so horrible.
Okay, let’s refocus.
If you want the information you are sharing to stick, you must learn how to repeat yourself, hopefully without annoying your readers too much. Repetition, therefore, is also an art, which we must practice. You must master the art of rephrasing, hiding, and being boldly deliberate when there are no other options. Because otherwise, repetition can be annoying and counterproductive.
Do your readers a favor, when a point is important, repeat it; however, mix it up enough that it’s refreshing in of itself each time. Don’t get lazy by simply copying and pasting, tell a story, and show it through a different lens. I’ll give you a few examples in a moment.
It’s this fear of repeating one’s self today that has so many people failing to teach others how to become masters of their art. It goes for the students as well. We see people giving up because they’re not willing to put in the time and practice playing the same notes over and over again until their instruments, and they themselves, sing beautifully.
It’s not always about learning something new, it’s often more about learning what you already know better.
New is overrated when the student hasn’t fully embraced and mastered what she already knows.
Bruce “One-Inch Punch” Lee
Bruce Lee was remarkable not only for his skills as a fighter but also as a teacher.
Due to Bruce Lee’s intense repetitive training of one single punch thousands, perhaps millions, of times, he was able to deliver a force from one inch away that could knock an opponent off of his feet.
Some claim the punch could kill.
The punch was made so famous by Bruce Lee that today it is known simply as the One-Inch Punch. Mention the One-Inch Punch to any professional fighter and they’ll instantly know to what you’re referring to and who made it famous.
The One-Inch Punch is not possible by just any layman without intensive training, in order to master it one must attempt it thousands upon thousands of times, and even then it might not be enough. Only the truly dedicated will eventually master the famed punch.
And yet, us poor little scribblers complain when authors repeat themselves even once.
If you read any book from Bruce Lee you will soon discover how he hammers home his philosophies over and over again. His lessons have taught legions of fighters over the last half-century and are still among the most sought after books on martial arts.
So the next time you are afraid to repeat yourself because you feel you still need to bring the point home, do it. A reader might complain about it today, but years down the road when she remembers the lesson well and uses it as a master, perhaps even without realizing it, she will owe you thanks.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” ―Bruce Lee
Mix It Up
With that said, you don’t want to repeat yourself simply by copying and pasting what you already stated. What you want to do is mix it up. Here are a few ways you can do that:
- State it directly, as a matter of fact.
- Tell a story.
- Use personal experiences.
- Give readers a practice assignment.
- Offer a quiz to help your readers remember.
- State it a final time in your closing remarks.
- Use comedy by stating the point in a humorously unexpected way, if possible.
- Use osmosis by referring to another similar point or an example you previously used. Such as, I used Bruce Lee for a lesson in my book The First Draft is Not Crap and in my online course The Art of Positive Journaling.
Bestselling Authors are the Ultimate Culprits!
If you research reviews from some of the hottest non-fiction bestsellers on Amazon, you’ll find that many reviewers complain about repetition, you’ll especially find this in reviews from books by Seth Godin, Jeff Goins, and Jon Acuff, authors who happen to be some of the very best teachers of our time.
As an experiment, whenever you have a free moment, consider doing a search in the reviews from the below books for “repetitive,” or “repeats themselves,” or other variations and see how many results you get:
This is Marketing by Seth Godin (Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestseller.)
Real Artists Don’t Starve by Jeff Goins (Wall Street Journal bestseller.)
Quitter by Jon Acuff (New York Times Bestselling author of six books including a Wall Street Journal #1 Bestseller.)
Don’t be too shocked that the book with the most acclaim also has the most complaints of being too repetitive, but all of the above have negative reviews claiming the authors were too repetitive.
Here’s the thing, all of the best teachers repeat themselves, and frankly, by and large, students hate it. We’ve had to put up with this since grade school and teachers can’t seem to stop doing it and the best teachers do it the most.
Damn them for being so good.
Aristotle took the matter so seriously that he stated: “It is frequent repetition that produces a natural tendency.” Perhaps it is of no coincidence that one of his most famous sayings is:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” —Aristotle
(Translated by Will Durant from Aristotle’s texts.)
Whatever you’re great at, wherever your talent has led you, you’re here because you practiced, again and again, you repeated the methods, you repeated the exercises, you memorized them over and over again, instructors, teachers, parents, friends, whoever helped you, did so by repeating processes and instructions over and over again.
Here’s something to consider (and if you think about it, you might be one of these students), students that become true masters of their chosen art are most often the ones that come back and thank their favorite teachers for hammering home the lessons they needed to learn.
Repetition is the true kick in the ass every artist needs
An important paper on this is:
Repetition is the First Principle of Learning
University of Virginia, by ROBERT F. BRUNER
One of the biggest mistakes a teacher can make is to forego the return or repetition. The learning process is one of slow engagement with ideas; gradually the engagement builds to a critical mass when the student actually acquires the idea. Repetition matters because it can hasten and deepen the engagement process. If one cares about quality of learning, one should consciously design repetitive engagement into courses and daily teaching. To do this well is harder than it seems.
As a pool player, I used to get frustrated with one of my instructors because he would have me practice one certain routine hundreds of times and, if I’m being honest, I grew to hate that routine, but eventually, there came a time when I could shoot through the entire routine with my eyes closed.
Without realizing it my shots became fluid and reflexive, I didn’t have to think about them anymore, I could free my mind while playing and shoot more true to my goal, and I won a lot more.
If you ever get the opportunity to watch a professional billiards trick shot player and he or she closes their eyes to make a fantastical shot, it’s because they practiced that shot hundreds of times with their eyes open and thousands of times with their eyes closed.
A Few Tips on how to use Repetition to Learn Better
- Learn lessons at least thrice, this includes tips, articles, and books, to name a few.
- Space out repetition, the brain learns better when you take pauses. In other words, don’t read a book again the day after you finish it, instead wait a month or two between readings. Give yourself enough time to absorb the information and then go over it again.
- Use short burst repetitions. With regard to my pool routine, it was rather short and quick so waiting a month on such a routine isn’t the same as it would be for longer curve learning. In this case, I repeated the exercise directly after finishing, I did this hundreds of times a day for several weeks, then paused a few days before repeating. Basic rule: The shorter the lessons the more frequent the repetition.
- Learn from different mediums, such as if you read a book about, let’s say, marketing, and it’s also available as an audiobook, first read it and then listen to it, and perhaps on the third go-around, read and listen simultaneously.
- This last one I like a lot, but it’s a bit controversial, listen to audiobook versions of what you want to learn while you sleep. I’ve woken up from dreams about the subject I’m listening to, so I know the brain is listening even while we sleep. How well does this help? I have absolutely no idea, but belief is a powerful thing and I believe it helps me learn skills better.
With all this said, I leave you with one more lesson from Bruce Lee, perhaps the most important:
”Obey the principles without being bound by them.”
Wax on, Wax off.
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Oh yeah, repetition for understanding certain subjects, especially through reading, is a great way to go about things. Thanks for this post!