Echo (echo echo echo)

This morning I actually typed the following sentence, although I have all my faculties and was not drunk at the time.

He gave a disgruntled grunt.

Be right back, just going to exorcise my word processor.

This got me thinking about echoes, if not the worst problem faced by writers then perhaps one of the most annoyingly niggly ones.

The problem is, the rules about conservation of energy really do apply to writer brains. Grunt good? More grunt better! Spend five minutes coming up with ‘malevolent’ as the perfect word for the hero’s boss? It will now be the most accessible word for your brain, which will duly give the hero a malevolent cat, a malevolent hangover, and a love interest who shoots him malevolent looks. Probably within six paragraphs of each other. Poor guy.

Of course ‘malevolent’ leaps out at you on read-through. Less obtrusive words tuck themselves away in the text, although they build up over time.

He had an odd effect on other people. He couldn’t miss it. He’d speak to people and they’d smile, then look puzzled, then drift away. People who didn’t drift away tended to be worrying. Perhaps he just wasn’t a people person, but then, the world was peopled with those.

I have spent some time looking for a genius bit of software that will pick this stuff up for me while ignoring words like ‘and’, ‘said’, and ‘while’ except when I want it to pick up ‘while’, and that doesn’t take half an hour to churn through the MS and then crash Word. Yes, I feel strongly about this. No, I am not aware of such software existing, but if anyone wants to recommend some in the comments I will love you forever.

However, the really hard one, which I don’t even think is machine-spottable, is the structural repetition. You phrase a sentence in a particular way, your brain latches on to the cadence, and whoops, I did it again.

Peering at his hand, he decided he could win this round. Selecting the ace, he decided to take a chance. Spinning the card across the green baize, he said, “Twist.” Frowning, his opponent dealt another card.

I’d love to say I was exaggerating but I’ve just come across an example of exactly this in a trad pub book. Which just goes to show that you can’t rely on an editor to pick this stuff up for you: the structural repetition is the wood, and thus invisible to an editor who’s reading for the trees (have you spelled all the words right, is this how to play pontoon anyway?)

Even harder to see is the structural habit. Speech adverbs is a common one. (“Really, a dinosaur?” she said doubtfully. “Yes,” he replied assertively. “I thought they were extinct,” she commented wryly.) Or try this for size:

Page 4: He was tall, broad, yet oddly youthful in his looks.

Page 76: The cake was delicious, chocolatey, yet with an odd hint of olive oil.

Page 105: She spoke clearly, loudly, yet with an odd reserve.

Ironically, this sort of thing is glaring to a reader tearing through the pages at speed, yet (GOD DAMMIT SEE WHAT I DID THERE) much less obtrusive to the much slower-moving editor, still less to the snail-like author.

Do I have a solution? Lol no. Well, the usuals:

  • Be aware of your habits. ‘Rather’ and ‘quite’ are two of my chronic ones (can you tell I’m British?), but I am also horribly prone to ‘grimace’ and also “He didn’t reply for a moment, and then…” Keep a list if you have to. This is painful to the self-esteem but hey, life is struggle.
  • Stick the MS into another font—try Comic Sans, seriously—and print it out, or format it as a book if you’re au fait with self publishing and read it on your ereader/tablet/phone. The change to your normal working layout helps enormously.
  • Text to speech it. Or read it out loud yourself if you can bear that.  
  • Choose violence and publish the book. You’ll see all of your echoes along with all your other mistakes, every single one of them, right there.
18 replies
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I swear short form (blog posts, reviews) are worse than long form, if only because with a mere few hundred words, the echoes are that much more glaring (to the reader, not the hapless writer).

  1. Linda Corrie
    Linda Corrie says:

    Huh. As a reader I consider the structural repetition as more of a feature than a bug. To me it’s just the charming way the author writes. The word echoes, though, those are annoying.

  2. Anne
    Anne says:

    “So” as an opener to dialogue is one I’ve noticed I do quite a bit. There’s a delicate balance between being true to how real people speak, and falling into over use of the same words.

    • Renee Dahlia
      Renee Dahlia says:

      Same! In my final year of high school, it was given to me as my most used word (according to class mates). Apparently I still have the ‘so’ habit.

  3. Melita
    Melita says:

    I don’t necessarily pick up on the sentence structure repetition, but a favorite word or phrase? One author loves to use ‘gallop’ for a person running and another *always* has a character wipe his hand down his face.

  4. Gill
    Gill says:

    One author I read consistently uses the word “very”, and sometimes “very very”, as a superlative or whatever it’s called. Sets my teeth on edge and also slows down the narrative for me

  5. Kaz Delaney
    Kaz Delaney says:

    As an author whose editor wants to change every ‘but’ to however, I found this fascinating. Thank you. PS – however, ‘however’ doesn’t always cut it imho ( lol) but what can we do?? Ha! Ahhh the joys… ( I also use way too many ellipses… )

  6. Élanor
    Élanor says:

    Is it really a serious issue if the structure is repeated on page 4, 76 then 105? You’d think the large gaps don’t make the repetition count as repetitive 😮

  7. Cee
    Cee says:

    “Moment” “grimace” “dark” and every single descriptor of what eyes do. There are more, but those are leaping off the page at me of late.

    ProWritingAid catches prose echoes nicely — and it can find full-phrase echoes as well as single-word echoes. I’m pretty sure it can also be programmed to run a custom report or to look for a particular set of words/phrases (ie: you could upload your list of personal crutch words and run a report just on that). It’s compatible with Word via plug-in, too, though I use it with Scrivener. Full disclaimer: I’ve yet to try to analyze more than one scene at a time, and I suspect it’d get unwieldy when looking at more than a 5-10k chunk of text in a single go.

    But it helps! I’ve stopped writing “all” every four sentences, so that’s a bonus.

  8. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    So much THIS! Especially the structural repetitions.
    ProWritingAid has an echo report, which I find useful.
    And I find listening to Word read the story to me picks up repetitions I’d never have spotted reading, both repeated words and sentence styles. I do something mindless and fiddly while Word reads, so I don’t have to stare at the screen all the time. Knitting works for me, as does – weirdly enough – doing jigsaw puzzles!

  9. Pam
    Pam says:

    Not a writer, just a linguist (or rather: I have been once). If you want to know which words you use often, in what context and how often, try to look for a concordance program (for linguists they are tools to search/analyse a corpus of texts). There are a bunch of free ones, so you could see if concordancing helps 🙂

  10. Finn Longman
    Finn Longman says:

    I’ve been noticing the structural similarities so much recently. I line-edited my debut by reading the whole thing aloud, which made me a lot better at spotting them, but now I can’t turn that part of my brain *off* while reading and it makes me incredibly nit-picky about everything. I think I broke books for myself. Hoping it wears off over time, but it’s been a few months now…

  11. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    As a professional copy editor/subeditor, I’m cheered to think that I’m not obsolescent yet! I editor mostly dense nonfiction (scientific articles of various sorts), where it’s even worse – repetition is impossible to avoid in many cases – but most of the same problems come up there too.

  12. Aidan
    Aidan says:

    Not that this is necessarily repetition, but something that really bugs me in a book is a staunch refusal to use the word “said.”

    “What’s that?” She exclaimed.
    “A dinosaur,” he proposed.
    “Are you sure?” She queried.
    “A green one,” he expounded.
    “It’s fast,” she articulated.

    Every time I read a book like this I find myself begging the author to use “said” just once. I attribute it to people who listen to closely to their grade school English teachers: don’t use “said,” don’t start a word with a conjunction, no run-on sentences, etc. Sure all those are rules of technically correct English grammar, and they have their place, but they make dialogue in particular seem stiff and unnatural. And like it was written by a 13-year-old.


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