All the fancy folks who get paid to play elaborate hoaxes on folks in the name of neurological science have told us time and time again that repetition is key to learning. Neural pathways are dug deeper and deeper, allowing the brain to access them more quickly. Et cetera, et cetera.
So why do composition teachers rail on repetition within writing? If it's something that is truly helpful to a reader, why are points being deducted? There's a very good reason for that, dear reader (sheesh, now I sound like a Victorian novel). You ready for this?
It's not. Repetition is good. Redundancy, however, isn't. So what's the flipping difference?
Repetition is repeating an element or elements within your writing to emphasize their meaning within the text. The information (or word) is repeated to cast information in a new light, add rhetorical emphasis, or draw connections within the larger scope of the work. Redundancy occurs when these repetitions have no meaning, when you're simply "spinning your wheels" rather than expanding, emphasizing, or connecting pieces of an argument.
Culprit numero uno? Word counts. When you start purposefully stretching out your argument to fill pages, you're almost certain to repeat yourself ... and not in a good way, either. Let's take a look at some examples, shall we?
Winston Churchill was known for being one sharp public speaker (as well as a complete drunkard), and one of his most famous speeches includes a little bit that goes something like this:
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender ...
The repetition of the phrase "we shall fight" is purposeful. It reinforces the idea behind the speech -- no quarter, no surrender. The rallying cry reinforces the strength of the message, giving it a poignancy that would have been lost had he gone synonym happy. Can you imagine how a "thesaurused" version of that speech would sound?
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, there shall be an altercation on the seas and oceans, we shall rumble with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall scrap on the beaches, we shall make a ruckus on the landing grounds, we shall quarrel in the fields and in the streets, we shall scuffle in the hills; we shall never surrender ...
Not exactly the kind of thing that goes down in history. But hey, JFK got away with calling himself a jelly doughnut. Maybe Churchill would have been remembered for his scrappy beaches and hilly scuffles.
Now that we've looked at some powerful rhetorical repetition, let's take a look at some redundancy. This is a terrible sentence overall, but the redundancy is especially noticeable:
Corporations in today's society drain American families dry by forcing them to spend all their money through inflation of prices and unfair costs that most people can't afford.
First off, this sentence could probably be cut down into just a few words: "Corporate inflation drains many Americans dry." If you can make such a drastic cut to a sentence without altering its meaning, then you're likely dealing with redundancy. Contrarily, Churchill's speech technically been cut down to fewer words, but it would not have had the same impact. Just saying, "We'll fight them no matter where they show up," is effective, but forgettable. And the fact that such a cut negatively impacts the writing is an indication of effective repetition.
So what's an aspiring student to do?
First off, put your thesaurus away. It can be a useful tool, but don't feel like every single iteration of your main point needs to use a different synonym. Sometimes synonyms carry different connotations, which will subtly change the meaning of what you're saying. Thin, slender, and skinny are not the same thing. All of them will be clustered together in a thesaurus, but the subtext behind them is vastly different.
Instead, ask yourself why you're repeating these elements. Sometimes you'll find that there really is no better word to accurately depict what you're saying. Using the word "corporation" a dozen times in your paper may not be a bad thing -- a corporation is a corporation. If you're repeating crap because you need to fill another page and a half, then you've got a completely different set of problems to worry about.