Alyssa and I recently launched The Writership Podcast. In each episode we critique submissions from authors who want to find problems they haven’t yet identified in their stories. Echoes appear in many of the manuscripts we review. Since so many authors struggle with this, we wanted to share our tips for rooting out these words and phrases.
Echoes are those words we repeat in our manuscripts, inadvertently or deliberately, that distract a reader from the experience of the story. An echo is a pitfall that entraps both veteran and inexperienced writers, and our manuscripts will read better when we can excise these words and phrases. Before we figure out how to rid ourselves of these unhelpful words, we need to understand where they come from and why they’re problematic.
Why should you take the time to eliminate echoes? It sounds nitpicky, but the repetition of particular words can distract your reader, pulling her out of the story. Our aim as storytellers should be to allow the reader to experience the story. Words that stand out as peculiar or repetitive distract them and may cause them to put your book down. Don’t worry that you’ll lose something by removing them. As author Sharla Rae has said, “When I reconstructed the sentences to eliminate echoes, the material read better. Even the action scenes were energized. Everything became more clear and concise without ‘sterilizing’ my writing style.”
Echoes show up in different ways. First we tend to use certain words in our speech that show up in our writing too. You can find a list of those words frequently used words here.
Sometimes writers repeat a word or phrase to emphasize or produce an effect. For example, He wanted to run away, never to come home. Never to come home. The problem is that this stylistic affectation can yield prose that is heavy. Your best bet is to let the words do the work on their own and trust your reader to understand what’s important.
Other echoes consist of words and phrases that we love and overuse. We all have pet words (I’m fond of kerfuffle and penultimate, and I use them whenever I can). They show up in our own writing more often than in other text. We recommend that you kill these darlings, painful as it might be.
So, how do you spot and eliminate these troublesome words?
- Read your manuscript aloud so that you can hear them. These words are invisible to your eyes, but your ear can often pick them up. Elizabeth Craig recommends that you use a font different from the one you use for writing while looking for echoes. K.M. Weiland uses a Kindle to dictate the story as she reads along. You might want to try a different location than where you wrote your manuscript or try printing it on paper if you usually look at a screen. The point is to change up the sensual experience of reading.
- Keep a list of your special words and use your word processor’s find function to seek out common echoes and those that are special to you.
- Use a word frequency counter in your word processor or app to catch other words you may not have noticed.
Do you have favorite words that you need to restrain yourself from using? Do you have a technique for ridding your prose of repeated words? Let us know in the comments below. If you liked this post and want more from Writership, join our crew. You’ll receive our monthly newsletter, hear about our promotions first, and receive a free copy of The Writership Sampler, a collection of some of our favorite exercises to inspire your writing.