Repetition, the Forbidden Tool

by Mark L. Levinson

Repetition is one of our first, best ways of learning.  It’s the way a human brain gains the ability to recapitulate the days of the week, the letters of the alphabet, and – in the case of the typical technical writer – at least one complete Monty Python movie.

Gertrude Stein wrote that each instance of repetition conveys its own new quality, and James Brown proved the point when — in a schtick that you’ll remember if you ever saw his act — he would repeatedly break free from the cloak of consolation and insist on pouring his heart out into the mike again, to an audience enthusiasm that only increased with each repetition.  Or when his band would loop over and over through the same four-bar riff as if, to the delight of all listeners, it had trapped time in a revolving door.

But try writing something like “Back your work up from time to time.  Back your work up from time to time.  Back your work up from time to time.”  Unthinkable.  Why?  I suppose it has to do with the difference between acoustic media and linear media.

People hate reading the same words over and over.  Suppose, for example, you want to suggest some good backup practices.  You could write a three-item list:  “Back up your data and your operational parameters after every reconfiguration.  Back up your data and your operational parameters at the end of each day.  Back up your data and your operational parameters after sending a copy to anyone.”  And you just might get away with it in a lecture.  But on the page, readers will resent the identical beginnings.  They want to see only the differences.  “Back up your data on these occasions:  After every reconfiguration, At the end of each day, After sending a copy to anyone.

In technical writing, one of the basic challenges of the print medium is that its nature is linear while the nature of the topic — of the product or process — may have more to do with a hierarchical or random-access structure.  Often what makes repetition seem called for is the attempt to force a non-linear structure into a linear one.

Theoretically, pages of online help can cope well with a non-linear structure, and it’s no crime if one page partially repeats another as long as each has a distinct message of its own. And with or without repetition, each page must either give the complete operational context or at least make it available without hopping the reader through too many links. 

In a printed manual, repeating a paragraph is one of the worst things you can do because it plays with the reader’s mind:  Have I read this before?  I think I have.  Where?  Was it right here?  Have I read this whole page?  I don’t think so.  So was the same paragraph on another page?  It must have been.  But was it exactly the same, or if I read it carefully will I find something new this time? 

Suppose that your manual’s overview covers a topic on page 12 that does not reappear for further explanation until page 135.  On the one hand, the reader who follows a cross-reference from page 12 to page 135 does not want to see the same introductory paragraph repeated there.  On the other hand, the reader who never read page 12, or who has forgotten it, needs that information in order to understand page 135.  In general, the best compromise is to summarize in a few words and refer back to page 12.  Or if the information is very brief, you can get away with “As the Overview explained...”

One form of repetition that we do force on the reader, for everyone’s benefit, is consistent vocabulary.  If erasing and deleting are the same thing, either always say erase or always say delete.  If a file and a document are the same thing, either always say file or always say document.  Otherwise the reader may look for distinctions where they don’t exist.

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.