But I digress.
What I wanted to tell you is that the other day I picked up a novel in a long-running series by a mega bestselling writer (now deceased). It was one of the later books in the series which, truth be told, was starting to run a little thin. Some critics have noted this, but I’m a fan of the early books so I thought, What the hey?
Unfortunately, I was only a few chapters in when I decided to set the book aside. I just got the feeling that this one was mailed in, that the writer wasn’t working hard anymore.
The final straw was a grating echo.
A writing echo is the close repetition of a word or phrase:
Monica charged into the room.
“So there you are!” she said.
Harvey said, “You don’t understand.”
The girl in the bed elbowed Harvey. “I think she does.”
“See you in court,” Monica said as she charged out the door.
The obvious echo here is charged. The words occur in close proximity. The echo clangs on the ear of the reader. It’s what I call one of those writing “speed bumps” that, even for a brief moment, can take the reader out of a smooth, fictional ride.
So don’t put them in.
But an echo is easy for a writer to write and overlook when editing his own manuscript. It should be something a good editor or reader catches for you.
In the novel I’m talking about, either the editor was asleep at the switch or, more likely, the manuscript went straight to copy editing. After all, the mega bestselling author sold 80,000 hardcovers out of the gate. Plus, he probably made it clear he was not going to edit the thing anyway.
So a clunky, clumsy echo found its way into the book:
Shepherded by the detail cop, it backed up out of sight. Somebody held up a clacker board in front of the camera.
A few paragraphs later:
Shepherded by the detail cop, the limo backed up out of sight. I’d been around movie sets before.
Now, one might argue that this glaring echo was somehow intentional stylistically. But there is no stylistic reason for it. If you’re going to echo intentionally for effect, you do it in a way that is unambiguous—usually following the “rule of three.” To wit:
I devoured the sandwich.
I devoured the fries.
I devoured the news, then decided it was time to get my butt in gear.
Or you can do a double:
I cancelled my subscription, then Twitter cancelled me.
All the way home I screamed at the injustice of it all. When I walked through the door, Stan screamed at me for being late.
In both cases, the echo is a pleasant one, and the reader knows it.
- The more distinct the word, the greater the echo
Common verbs like run, walk, went don’t stick out so much, though in the same paragraph you should really choose another verb. Someone who runs into a room can scurry out, for example. Just don’t have them scurry in, too.
- Do a word to search for your personal bugaboos
I always have a word or phrase that repeats in my first drafts. Mrs. B catches these, and I then search for that echo throughout the document and make changes accordingly.
Do you ever catch echoes in your own writing? What are some of your frequently repeated words or phrases?