Notes from Writing Class - Echo

Disclaimer: This is a recurring and random series of posts. I'm currently enrolled in a basic writing/editing class and felt that my notes might be helpful to others. Please note, I am not an editor. I'm just an author trying to learn more about the craft to improve my own work, while sharing the things I learn along the way.   Enjoy.

What the heck is an echo?

An echo happens when you use the same or similar word in close proximity. The echo is one of the easiest things to do in writing. You will do unconsciously echo many words in your first draft, and may not even see the echo when you start revisions.

(see how I snuck in a quick example? Echo is the "echo" word. How many times did I use it in those three sentences?)

This is something you want to avoid doing whenever possible. When you're tempted to use the same word twice, think of ways to reword or restructure the surrounding sentences.

Example 1 (echo)

I surveyed the café, noticing that two strangers had sat down at one of the card tables along the painted mural wall. They didn't seem like the type that frequented coffee houses, especially not a vintage café like this.

See the echo here. The word cafe is used twice in close proximity.

Example 2 (revised)

I surveyed the café, noticing two strange men sitting down at one of the card tables along the painted mural wall. They looked too clean cut, definitely not the type who would frequent a vintage place like this.

The simple fix to echoes it to get out your thesaurus and see if a synonym will fit in the echoing word's place. However, that doesn't always work. In those cases, sometimes a little reword does the trick. Take a look at the sentences where the echo is occurring and try to recast the sentence (or sentences) so that you can omit one of the echoing words.

You're never going to get rid of them all, but you can snip out quite a few by doing this. It will make your writing look and feel more polished.

Now, the biggest culprit of the infamous echo happens when we write what a character is doing.

In first person, it comes out I, I, I, I, I.

In third person, it comes out he/she, he/she, he/she.

It's so easy to fall into the, I or He/She trap. You're probably saying, "Well, how the hell am I going to tell you he did something without saying he?" The trick is to reword and rework sentences to that you stretch out the gaps between words so that the reader doesn't hear the echo so prominently.

Let's look at some examples.

First person

I knew it was inadvisable to walk around the streets alone at night, but I did not have a car so I was forced to do it anyway. I carried my keychain of pepper spray, for defense, just in case I ran into anyone dangerous. I naively believed in its ability to protect me from any attacker.

Do you see all the I's? It's like an annoying drum beat after a while. I, I, I, I,...

Revised First person

It was inadvisable to walk the streets alone at night. I knew this but didn't have a car, so there was no other choice. For defense, I carried a key chain of pepper spray, naively believing in its ability to protect me from any attacker.

Remember what I said above about reworking your sentences? Sometimes it is necessary to remove unnecessary I's, or bury them inside the sentence where they are less noticable.

Third Person

Sasha downed her drink. She winced as the liquid burned her throat. A warmth was building in her stomach. Two shots down in less than twenty minutes. She knew she needed to pace herself or this night wasn’t going to go very far. She knew Tequila was a dangerous alcohol. She'd heard stories of people doing crazy things when they drank a little too much of it. She made a quick mental note, not to have another drink for a while.

See all the she's?

Revised Third Person

Sasha downed her drink, wincing as the liquid burned the back of her throat. A warmth slowly built in her stomach. Two shots down in less than twenty minutes. Sasha knew she needed to pace herself or this night wouldn't go very far. Tequila was a dangerous alcohol. She'd heard stories of the crazy things people had done after drinking too much. Setting the glass down, she made a mental note not to have another drink for a while.

Mixing in her, with she, and the character's name helps to smooth out the echo. You'll never completely avoid it, but by reworking the sentences you can make it a little less noticeable.

The rule of thumb with the I's and She's is to make sure that you don't have two sentences in a row starting with that specific character reference. Widening the gap by at least a sentence length will help to smooth out the echo and will make the story flow a lot better.


Mysti said…
Very good advice, and thanks for such good examples! It's hard to do, and you're right-in first drafts, it's very common to echo words. Thesauruses are my friends :)

I also tell people to avoid starting every paragraph with "I" or "She" or "Jane". That's noticeable at first glance, and leaves a bad taste in the reader's mouth.
Katie Salidas said…
Very good point Mysti, starting out consecutive sentences with the same word is a no-no as well!
Rex Jameson said…
From what I understand, "said" and "asked" are exceptions to this rule. Do you find this to also be the case? My first draft of my first novel had all kinds of attempts to remove echo from the conversations. Instead of "He said", it might be "He shouted" or "He mumbled", etc.

After changing almost all of these occurrences to "said" or "asked", beta readers told me that the entire text flowed ten times better. So, I'm assuming said and asked are exceptions to this rule, right? Cheers!
Katie Salidas said…
You might want to check out an earlier post I did on dialogue tagging. Yes, Said is considered an invisible word; however, if that is your only go-to dialogue tag, it will create an echo.
Rex Jameson said…
I'm more in the Nathan Bransford camp of this when reading:

He said, she shouted loudly

When I first wrote Lucifer's Odyssey, I stayed away from said/asked and spaced them out, thinking the reader appreciated that. However, from extensive beta reading of my samples, I've discovered that people genuinely hate the tactic. Said/asked appear to be the preferred bread-and-butter by readers of dialog.

Look at Nathan's examples in the above link. He's right, imo.
Katie Salidas said…
That is your opinion, however, I do not agree. As Nathan even stated in his post, there is much debate on both sides of the issue. Do what you feel works best while you write your story. In the end your editor tell you what corrections to make before it's published.
Mysti said…
Try action tags before dialogue, and many times you don't even need "said" or "asked" or "yelled".

Sebastian punched the wall, sending plaster to the floor. "I hate that woman!"