Articles Editing

Leave the (word) echoes in the cave!

Cave, light shining through
Written by Antonica Jones

There are many small things you can do to improve your writing. Catching your word echoes in action is one of them! Antonica Jones, our editor in residence, shows you how.

They come under the cross-section between “things you can’t spot in your own writing” and “things that can drive your readers up the wall”. Word echoes are a common problem, but can be a big hindrance to your writing.

‘They grabbed their meagre rations and made for the cave,’ we read on page 32.

‘Those meagre rations aren’t worth risking your neck for!’ says Yemmi on page 87. The pedantic proofreader reacts, but you probably don’t… yet.

And then, on page 148, like an electro-pop earworm begging for your attention: ‘Cas huffed and threw the tray across the cabin, fed up with the meagre rations she was expected to survive on.’

It’s more than a proofreader’s pet peeve. Word echoes – these repeated words and phrases, whether lines or chapters apart – show a lack of imagination in the basic building blocks of your writing. You might be telling the most brilliant pirate story I’ve ever read, but if you can’t describe waves without using the word “crashing”, you’ll quickly lose me.

A big deal or a big overreaction?

There are a number of reasons to be on the lookout for word echoes. First, they disrupt the narration. If I’m taking a pause, even for a microsecond, to recall that you’ve used the same word to describe the crashing/thunderous/roaring sea throughout the entire book, I’m no longer 100% in the scene. Also, I’m rolling my eyes.

Second, focusing on your word choices will make you a better writer and a more attentive editor of your own work. Train yourself to find the echoes, and you’ll find yourself catching a dozen other trip-ups in your writing, too.

Third, it’s a sign of poor quality. Whether your readers notice them or not, if a dozen echoes slipped through your grasp, what else might have? A huge spelling error in chapter 6? A boy whose eyes morph from blue to brown midway through the book with no explanation? Whether you’re self-publishing your book without the funds for a proofreader (I’m flinching at the thought, but hey, you do you) or you’re expecting your book to go through several rounds of copyediting and proofing before it hits the shelves, it’s good practice to catch these things yourself.

Note the exceptions

Sometimes, echoes work. They do in the powerful recurrences in Zadie Smith’s writing, in the self-aware repetitions of Terry Pratchett, in the disconcerting world of Welcome to Night Vale. In some genres and styles, word echoes can be a great trope to riff off. But, unless they’re conscious and intentional (and, sometimes, when they are), you’re better off leaving the echoes behind.

How to escape the crashing waves

  • It goes without saying, but proofread your work. In fact, proofread at least twice: once for consistency and issues like word echoes, once for grammar and formatting.
  • Allow a few days between finishing the writing and beginning the proofreading. Come at it with fresh eyes. And don’t let yourself skim through paragraphs because “I remember writing this like it was yesterday, it’s fine!”. It’s probably not.
  • Read aloud: You’re more likely to catch a word/phrase repetition if you remember saying it before.
  • Try different voices, reading paces and fonts to trip yourself up. Use highlighters and stickers to help you recognise your patterns.
  • Get a friend to read it. They won’t be as familiar with your voice and will have an easier time picking up the echoes.
  • Plug a chapter through the handy tool at wordcounter.com to see your most-used words.
  • Use a text-to-speech tool like ttsreader.com to have your work read back to you. The repetitive tone of the automated voice can help you pick up on unusually frequent words!

This isn’t just a valuable exercise for books you’re about to pitch – it’s a priceless way of distilling your creativity into its best possible form over time. Take a short story you wrote 6 years ago or a blog post you penned for a friend. Follow these rules and jot down any echoes you catch. Keep a running list – your usual suspects are likely to reappear. Stick the list on the wall and return to it every now and then. Next time you’re about to type a repeat offender into your upcoming novella, you’ll be able to catch yourself before the proofreading even begins.

Photo credit: iStock.com/wedekiba

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