I was sending email to a friend about a book we'd both read and both found problematic. The book had an exciting plot that was bogged down by unnecessary description and repetition.
As I was listing my complaints to my friend, I realized that too much repetition doesn't only leave readers bored and wishing the author would hurry up and get to the new stuff. An even more serious problem with repetition is that readers might be led to incorrectly believe that an oft-repeated detail has some important significance that will be revealed later.
In this particular case, the narrator frequently remarked on the oddness of a certain phenomenon. I spent the whole book waiting to find out the secret cause of the phenomenon and coming up with various theories of my own. At the end, it remained unexplained. This was apparently just an odd occurrence after all.
If the detail had been mentioned only once, I wouldn't have expected it to mean anything extra. The multiple repetitions made it appear highlighted for a reason, but I now think it was just another instance of sloppy writing and editing. Grr.
Writers, take care that what you include in a story, and especially what you repeat, doesn't result in readers focusing on the wrong points -- unless you're doing that deliberately and carefully. Once again, this is one of those areas where getting feedback from early readers is crucial, because it's very difficult to spot in your own work.
I repeat: Get feedback on your work from early readers! There is no substitute for an outside perspective.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Becky Tuch at Beyond the Margins on Obsession: What’s Healthy, What’s Not: "The key to transitioning from one type of obsession (destructive) to the other kind (productive) is very simple: write anyway. Find the doubt, the discomfort, the anxiety, and write anyway."
→ Livia Blackburne dissects the Anatomy of a Death Scene: "Then I started thinking. People die in my books as well. Why don't my beta readers cry? So, being the cold, analytical psychologist that I am, I went through Plain Kate’s death scene line by line to tease out the elements that tugged at my heartstrings."