The term vain repetition is often used in certain religious circles, typically in reference to repetitive, ritualistic prayer, based on a comment Jesus made in Matthew 6:7. I’ve decided, though, that vain repetition is the perfect term for a common mistake in writing. Brace yourselves for another of my writing pet peeves.
There are literary techniques that utilize repetition, such as anaphora or alliteration. That's not what this blog entry is about. No, I’m talking about those instances—typically in flowery, poetic prose, though every writer does it, and I have been so very guilty of it myself—where the writer is so enamoured with their own ability to turn a phrase that they can't decide which way they want to say it. So they say it both ways. Or all three.
(Watch for my example in this paragraph.) Seriously. Do us all a favor and pick one way to say it. I realize all three sentences might be lovely, and your mother or best friend or spouse is highly impressed with your prose prowess, but by the end of your literary muscle flex, your reader is no longer impressed. They're possibly annoyed that you’ve wasted their time repeating yourself, or just amused at what came across as self-absorption. Instead of expecting your reader to plow through your repetition, save your other clever versions of the same sentence for another time. Don't beat a dead horse with your re-invented phrases. Please.
Did you count them? I made the same point at least four different ways in that previous paragraph. Weren’t you impressed? I did feel a bit of pride about the alliteration in that little “prose prowess” ditty. Wasn’t that clever of me?
That is why I call it vain repetition. But you got my point, didn't you? So don't do to your readers what I just did to you. And please, please, heaven-have-mercy please don’t do it in fiction.