Elegant variation – to repeat or not to repeat? 

Stylistic variation versus writing for the web: fight!!

 Elegant variation – to repeat or not to repeat? 

Many writers – journalists especially – find it hard to call something the same thing twice. If you-re writing about Michael Owen, for instance, you might refer to him as 'Michael Owen' the first time round, then perhaps 'the Newcastle striker' at the second mention, then perhaps 'England's talismanic goal-scorer', then 'the injury-plagued 27-year-old', 'the diminutive forward' and so on. Anything but just calling him 'Michael Owen' again. That's elegant variation, and you might think it's a Good Thing. I was certainly taught so, in journalism school. On the other hand, as a web writer you might be asked by a client to optimise your copy for a 'keyword density of 3-10 per cent' ie use the same particular word three to ten times in every 100. You may also have read that it's good usability to restrict your vocabulary online. And/or you may be asked to make sure your copy is in Plain English, which means among other things following the maxim: 'You can use the same word twice in a sentence if you can't find a better word.' That's web writing for you. So what if you want to vary elegantly and produce good web copy? To repeat or not to repeat? The first point to make is that, in many people's eyes, elegant variation is not so much a technique to emulate as a writerly vice to avoid. Certainly Henry Fowler thought so when he coined the phrase in Modern English Usage(1926):

It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly, & still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurements of elegant variation. [...] The fatal influence [...] is the advice given to young writers never to use the same word twice in a sentence - or within 20 lines or other limit.

One meaning of 'elegant' was 'fussy' or 'overdone' in Fowler's day. To vary elegantly was to be a bit of a ham. Wikipedia defines elegant variationas the 'unnecessary use of synonyms' and cites the example of "elongated yellow fruit" as an elegant variation of "banana". In his critical writings, stylist's stylist Martin Amis frequently presents elegant variation as an unpardonable tic of the 'anti-writer'. Here is Amis on Henry James:

James's prose suffers from an acute behavioural flaw. Students of usage have identified that habit as 'elegant variation'. The phrase is intended ironically, because the elegance aspired to is really pseudo-elegance, anti-elegance. For example, 'She proceeded to the left, towards the Ponte Vecchio, and stopped in front of one of the hotels which overlook that delightful structure.' I can think of another variation on the Ponte Vecchio: how about that vulgar little pronoun 'it'? Similarly, 'breakfast', later in its appointed sentence, becomes 'this repast', and 'tea-pot' becomes 'this receptacle'; 'Lord Warburton' becomes 'that nobleman' (or 'the master of Lockleigh'); 'letters' become 'epistles'; 'his arms' become 'these members' and so on. Apart from causing the reader to groan out loud as often as three times in a single sentence, James's variations suggest broader deficiencies: gentility, fastidiousness, and a lack of warmth, a lack of candour and engagement.

Still not convinced? Try this, from The Art of Writing, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

An undergraduate brings me an essay on Byron. In an essay on Byron, Byron is (or ought to be) mentioned many times. I expect, nay exact, that Byron shall be mentioned again and again. But my undergraduate has a blushing sense that to call Byron Byron twice on one page is indelicate. Half-way down the page he becomes 'the gloomy master of Newstead': overleaf he is reincarnated into 'the meteoric darling of society': and so proceeds through successive avatars - 'this arch-rebel,' 'the author of Childe Harold,' 'the apostle of scorn,' 'the ex-Harrovian, proud, but abnormally sensitive of his club-foot,' 'the martyr of Missolonghi,' 'the pageant-monger of a bleeding heart.'... The Gospel does not, like my young essayist, fear to repeat a word, if the word be good. The Gospel says, 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's' -not 'Render unto Caesar the things that appertain to that potentate.'

Online, especially in static web content and email, elegant variation is best avoided. It's fine, frequently very helpful, to call something by the same name, sometimes even in the same sentence. It takes courage to do this at first, but your users will benefit. Indeed, restricting vocabulary online is great usability. Too often, for instance, sites still refer to their target audiences by several different words - some combination of 'users', 'customers', 'registered users', 'readers', 'members', 'account holders' etc - when one single, friendlier word would cover them all: 'you'. Or again, it's much better to refer to '2001' as '2001' every time it comes up, rather than 'seven years ago' or 'two years previously': it saves users having to wade back through your content to do the sum. Steve Krug, in his excellent Don't Make Me Think, compares web users looking at pages to drivers looking at 'billboards going by at 60mph'. This is no time for 'elegance'; this is a time for instant clarity.