Big ideas justify repetition
Imagine: After days of writer’s block, you’re suddenly inspired to write a long and insightful blog post. You’ve found the perfect illustration, and your headline is brilliant. You’re crushing it. Then, just before you click the publish button, a small blip of doubt appears on your radar. Somehow, what you’ve written sounds so familiar.
In a flash you remember: you’ve already covered this topic. The words are different, the examples are new, but the case you’re making is more or less the same.
So what do you do now? As I’ve suggested before, a concern that someone else has already made your point shouldn’t stop you from publishing. But what if the person who made the point was you?
Fear not: There may be very good reasons to publish anyway.
In the right circumstances, there is a strong rationale for repeating yourself. But before we leap blindly into the upside of repetition, let’s consider the downside.
1. You may be subtracting value, not adding it. Once in a while, the first time you express an idea, it’s so well put that any subsequent efforts diminish the impact of the original. If you can’t improve on it or extend it, just link to it.
2. You may be using your desire to repeat yourself as an excuse. You may have other topics or ideas that you know you need to address, but it’s hard work. Going back to your old idea is so much easier. If that’s the case, put it on hold and focus on the new ones. The old one will always be there if you need it.
3. You may lack new ideas. Maybe you need to get out more. If you aren’t actively engaging with your community by reading, asking, and listening, your ideas, old or new, won’t be relevant.
If your urge to repeat yourself survives these three arguments against it, take heart. There are at least three equally compelling arguments in favor of it:
1. If you’ve forgotten what you said before, so has your reader. So say it again. What makes ideas grow on people is repetition. One of the findings of Edelman’s 2011 “Trust Barometer” is, as Krishna De puts it, that “the more we hear something, the more likely we are to believe it—59% of respondents will believe the information they receive if they hear it 3 – 5 times.”
Last week, Ardath Albee suggested that even more repetition may be required for maximum retention: “Here’s the dirty little secret about repetition: It takes 5 – 12 repetitions of an idea to make it stick.”
2. You’re not repeating, you’re refining. Most ideas aren’t hermetically sealed packages of eternal truth. Instead, they evolve and grow. The blog format is ideal not only for documenting this growth process, but also for enhancing it through interactions with and feedback from others.
Do all those earlier iterations of an idea in a blog become disposable the moment the latest version is published? Not at all. In fact, for me, one of the glories of the blog format is the way it allows readers to go back and follow the development of an idea over time. In blogs like Joe Pulizzi’s Junta42 blog or Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine, to cite two very different examples, going back to their earliest posts and reading forward through time reveals the detail and depth in their ideas that wouldn’t exist without repetition and reworking.
3. Your idea is so important that it’s all you need. There’s nothing wrong with one-trick ponies if the trick is really good. Long ago, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a short book on Tolstoy called The Hedgehog and the Fox. The title was inspired by an ancient Greek fragment that says “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
The insight Berlin drew from this was that there are two kinds of thinkers. One, the fox, gets his brilliance from the many different ideas he throws out for consideration. The brilliance of the other, the hedgehog, is based on one very big, complex idea that he devotes himself to exploring and explaining. If you’re a hedgehog, repetition is an asset, not a liability.
There are probably more than these three reasons not to fear repetition in your blog posts. If you can add one in the comments here, please do. But otherwise, feel free to paraphrase Walt Whitman and repeat after me: “Do I repeat myself? Very well then I repeat myself.”