On elegant variation and good copy

Experience Design
On elegant variation and good copy

Tom Sunnergren

Director of Content


"It’s a single concept that offers two different but complementary meanings. Together, they offer a clear way of thinking about good writing. Or, at least, avoiding its opposite."

If theirs one thing you learned in primary school English, it’s how to spot the mangled “there’s” in the first half of this sentence. If there were two, the second might be Elegant Variation.

Elegant Variation, as it’s commonly taught, underscores the importance of avoiding unintentional repetition of words within a piece of writing. As the argument goes, glaring repetition scans as clunky, boring, and carelessly authored. It confronts the audience with an unfortunate question: if the writer didn’t invest much time creating the content, why should they bother reading it?

This is especially helpful for producers of marketing copy to bear in mind. People remember what we repeat, and strategic repetition can be powerfully persuasive. Think “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Or “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Or even the less lofty, but still effective “Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.” These are memorable pieces of rhetoric because of repetition, not in spite of it. The flipside, of course, is that when we repeat inessential words, we encourage our audience to remember inessential ideas. Or, more likely still, nothing at all.

At face value, this is good advice. But it’s just the half of it. There’s a history behind Elegant Variation that makes the concept even richer.

The expression Elegant Variation was first coined in the early 20th century by usage authority H.W. Fowler. It wasn’t meant to be complimentary. Today, “elegant” connotes simple and parsimonious. Then, it meant something closer to “needlessly and pretentiously complicated.” The term was used to poke fun at writers who tied themselves in knots to avoid repeating a word or phrase. Imagine reading an awful passage like “the man unpeeled the oblong yellow fruit and took a bite.” You’re imagining a writer who really didn’t want to type “banana” again.

This can cause real problems for readers. Chief among them, confusion. If you call the same thing by two different names, people may, understandably, think you’re talking about two different things.

Consider the below:

Want a $500 cash bonus to open a Trust Bank checking account? Share your email to get an offer.

Presumably we’re looking at a message about a cash bonus that incentivizes opening a checking account. But what is the difference between the “cash bonus” referenced in the first sentence and the “offer” in the second? Are the two being used interchangeably? Or is there more to the offer than the cash bonus? It’s not clear. What is clear, however, is the importance of not switching willy-nilly between naming conventions for the sake of mixing things up.

English is a complicated language. And readers’ tastes, authors’ styles, and publications’ objectives are so varied that good English writing resists simple rules. This is what makes Elegant Variation so unusually useful. Within a single concept we get two different but complementary meanings. Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t commit worse sins in an attempt to not repeat yourself. Each meaning limits and balances its counterpart. Together, they offer a clear way of thinking about good writing. Or, at least, avoiding its opposite.

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