Could You Please Repeat That? Showing Students the Effect of Repetition in Writing

Remember that Family Guy bit where Stewie is begging to get Lois’s attention by doing that lovable and annoying and relentless thing children do? “Lois! Lois! Lois! Lois! Lois! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mama! Mama! Mama! Ma! Ma! Ma! Ma! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mummy! Mummy! Mumma! Mumma! Mumma!”

Of course, Lois replies, “WHAT?!”

Repetition is, no doubt, effective.

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I tell my students often that carefully and intentionally placed repetition can elevate your writing like that (*snaps fingers).

Something I’ve done that pushes students towards this type of intentional and elevated writing is to zoom in on the sentence level and examine the writer’s choices in repetition.

The upshot is that this is a two-birds, one stone approach. Students are required to both analyze the writing, which could tilt towards either literary or rhetorical analysis, and imitate the structure in their own writing.

Take for example these mentor sentences and passages:

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.

But he was like that, and as soon as the little cake had been deposited on the table, and the orchestra had finished the birthday piece, and the general attention had shifted from the man and the woman, I saw him say something to her under his breath—some punishing thing, quick and curt and unkind. I couldn’t bear to look at the woman then, so I stared at my plate and waited for quite a long time. Not long enough, though. She was still crying when I finally glanced over there again. Crying quietly and heartbrokenly and hopelessly, all to herself, under the gay big brim of her best hat.

I like my love with a budget, I like my hugs with a scent/

You smell like light, gas, water, electricity, rent

And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.
With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasn’t sure. He hadnt kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Some thoughts on the mentors:

As a reader, I find these mentors interesting and beautiful. As an English teacher, I find some lovely constructions that are downright poetic, and I would argue, create poetry. My AP Literature students would probably say they notice the following devices in these passages: polysyndeton, asyndenton, anaphora, and parallelism. For these students, putting a name to this technique is required; for some students it might just be fun to know.

But all students, I believe, can benefit from the examination of mentors like these by deciding what’s striking or interesting or summoning and trying to replicate it for their own purposes in writing.

Once it clicks that grammatical constructions, in this case versions of repetition, can elevate and improve writing, it can become an easy, go-to strategy for many student writers. This study can also nurture an awareness that writers intentionally manipulate how sentences and paragraphs are put together for effect. This is how I want my students to think about literature, and this is how I want them to approach writing.

How I might use this idea in my classroom:

A lesson might go like this:

  • Pass out mentors from above or other mentor sentences and passages that rely heavily on repetition.
  • Ask students what they notice about the mentors and what they have in common. I might even have students make a Venn diagram or some other graphic way of representing how they are structurally similar.
  • Ask students to determine the effect of repetition on the sentence or passage. Use reliable collaborative learning protocols for discussion and share out.
  • Have students choose one sentence or passage to use as a mentor for imitation. I might assign a topic or have students choose one that matches their chosen mentor.
  • Have ‘em get to writing!

Other ideas might include:

  • Having students find their own mentor text that aligns with repetition structures studied.
  • Asking students to return to previously written pieces and revise a paragraph using some of the strategies identified in the mentor texts.
  • Creating an opportunity for students to self-assess and rate a paragraph before and after the use of these repetition constructions.

And the cool thing is this is just scratching the surface of using repetition for effect. There are many, many lovely and wonderful and wacky and weird sentences, passages, essays, and stories that fit the bill for this writer-ly trick and show students that elevating their writing is as easy as one, two, three.

Do you have any favorite passages that rely on repetition for effect? What other ways do you see this idea fitting into your mentor text study?

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