Writing and the Vice of Elegant Variation

At some point in our education, we were told to vary our writing to avoid monotony. So what do most of us do? We avoid repeating the same word in a given passage, believing that doing so--that using different words for the same thing--will keep a passage from being monotonous. Thus, in a passage about education, we may find education referred to as schooling in one sentence, knowledge acquisition in another, human capital production in a third, teacher output in a fourth, and so on. The writer, terrified at the thought of being boring, strains for ever more ridiculous expressions of a single idea for which there exists a perfectly good word.

Using different terms for the same concept simply to avoid repetition is generally bad advice. It constitutes a writing vice known as elegant variation. We see an example of elegant variation in the following passage, where the author, determined to avoid repeating collective bargaining, changes the leading adjectives in each case:

This paper examines cross-national differences in the development of sectoral collective bargaining . . . The authors seek to explain why centralized, coordinated bargaining institutions were established . . . The authors argue that these outcomes resulted from differences in institutional loopholes employers were able to exploit to avoid centralized bargaining . . . Findings demonstrate the importance of sector-level political dynamics for the construction or erosion of solidaristic bargaining structures . . .

Sectoral collective bargaining; centralized, coordinated bargaining; centralized bargaining; solidaristic bargaining: do all those mean the same thing? If so, far better is to use the same term each time, thus saving the reader from wondering if the author means something different in each case. Readers would much rather be bored than confused.

A footnote: I'm not saying that repetition is always good. There's an art to knowing what is good repetition and what is bad repetition. A case in point is the penultimate sentence of this post. It originally read as follows:

If so, far better is to use the same term each time, thus saving the reader from wondering if the author means something different each time.

In my view, repeating the phrase each time was bad repetition. So I changed the second instance to in each case