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What are echo words? Sometimes called “echoes” instead, this is just another way writers and editors refer to words or phrases that are being repeated a little too often, too close together.

These echoes may be accidental or deliberate, but either way, they risk distracting the reader and pulling them out of the story. None of us want that for our work!

What are echo words?

Echoes can be anything, from crutch words to commonly overused phrases to words you just really like as an individual.

Echo words I see all the time in my work as a book editor include, but aren’t limited to:

  • glance/glanced
  • nod/nodded
  • eyes
  • sigh/sighed
  • laughed
  • breathed
  • took a breath/sucked in a breath

As you can see, body parts and actions are some of the most common. It makes sense! When we’re trying to convey what our characters are feeling, body language and action both come into play. What happens is that we use the same body language and action to try to convey emotion, and then it becomes repetitive.

The above list is not comprehensive in any way; you can echo any word, and your particular “offenders” will vary, possibly even between projects.

How do you find echo words?

Once you start knowing what to look for, it becomes easier to spot echoes on your own. But there are some ways you can help yourself through this process:

  1. Have Word read aloud to you. If you use Microsoft Word, you can use the Read Aloud feature to have your computer read your manuscript back to you. It’s common for our eyes to skip over words in text we’ve read a dozen times, but those echoes are much easier to hear. And if you don’t have Microsoft Word, you can just read it out loud to yourself!
  2. Change fonts and/or font colors. Because our brains get used to seeing our manuscripts a certain way, changing the font and/or font color can help the manuscript look “new” and make it easier to pick out echo words.
  3. Use the “find” or “search” feature in your word processor. If you know you have certain words you like to overuse, or if you want to manually search for common echo words, just use your word processor’s built in search feature. This will help you find a lot of echo and crutch words! The next section has a list of common echoes to help you get started.
  4. Use something like ProWritingAid’s Echoes Report. If you have ProWritingAid, they have a feature that checks for close repeats.

Let’s fix an example of echoing!

Let’s look at an example of echoing. Here’s the original text with the echoes flagged:

Lisette stood in the dimly lit chamber, her eyes fixed on the ancient carvings spreading out before her. The flickering candlelight made shadows dance before her eyes and warp the carvings. Lisette sighed.

Lisette,” called her companion, James. “Lisette, we must be careful.”

She sighed, her eyes tracing the intricate markings on the wall. Lisette had to uncover whatever ancient secrets this chamber held.

There are six words being echoed here: Lisette, chamber, eyes, ancient, carvings, and sighed.

“Lisette” is tricky since it’s the character’s name, but you don’t always need to repeat names. There are ways to write around that and add some variation.

As for “eyes,” constantly mentioning this body part is attempting to give the audience a stage direction. But, if Lisette/the narrator is explaining what Lisette sees, we can assume her eyes are responsible for seeing those images.

“Chamber,” “carvings,” and “ancient” are important for the setting and presumably the plot, but we can reduce their usage and/or swap in synonyms for variation.

And finally, “sighed” is being used to show Lisette may be exasperated or frustrated, perhaps weighed down in some way by the discovery of these carvings. Let’s try to find a different way to show this.

Here’s a revised version, with the original echo words flagged again.

Lisette stood in the dimly lit chamber, studying the ancient carvings spreading out before her. The flickering candlelight made shadows dance across the stone wall and warp the markings.

Lisette,” called her companion, James. “We must be careful.”

Sighing, Lisette adjusted the heavy knapsack on her back. She had to uncover whatever secrets this place held, danger be damned.

As you can see, the only thing we’ve repeated in the rewritten version is the character’s name, Lisette. 

Sighing: We’ve cut out the multiple sighs, replacing them instead with additional body language and some prose about Lisette’s quest/goal. 

Eyes: We completely eliminated this word since it wasn’t necessary within this context.

Chamber, carvings, and ancient: We eliminated repetition of these words. It’s clear that Lisette hasn’t moved from where she was inspecting the carvings, so we don’t need to keep repeating the image and setting.

Of course, there are dozens of ways you can rewrite sentences and sections of your manuscript to eliminate echoes. Perhaps you would’ve rewritten that example differently, and that’s okay! This is just one example. The point is that you can remove echoes without losing things like setting, a character’s mood, and so forth.

Echoes to Search For

This is NOT a comprehensive list, as echo words will be individual to every writer and manuscript. However, to help you get started, here are the most commonly overused words and phrases I see in my work as a fiction editor:

Body parts

  • Eyes (#1 offender in almost every manuscript, including my own writing!)
  • Hand/hands
  • arm/arms
  • stomach
  • chest

Actions

  • nod/nodded
  • sigh/sighed
  • laugh/laughed
  • smirk/smirked
  • smile/smiled
  • turn/turned
  • glance/glanced
  • gaze/gazed
  • breathed
  • took a breath/sucked in a breath

Dialogue tags

  • snapped
  • mused
  • whispered
  • called
  • murmured

Filtering phrases

If you’re unfamiliar with filtering phrases, the short of it is that these are words that indicate you’re telling instead of showing. Removing them makes your writing more engaging. You can read a full run-down in this blog post, but here common filters to look for:

  • Noticed
  • Saw
  • Watched
  • Heard
  • Tasted
  • Smelled
  • Felt
  • Thought
  • Realized
  • Decided
  • Wondered
  • Seemed

Do you have to fix all echoes?

The short of it is that no, you don’t have to change every echo word or phrase you come across. Adjusting most of them will result in more concise, engaging writing, like the example we did together earlier. 

Still, there are times where you’ll be using repetition on purpose or where you maybe need to “echo” words.

  • Stylistic repetition: This is simply when you repeat certain words, phrases, or sentence structures for emphasis.
    • In a novel, you might also use repetition in dialogue if one character is literally repeating the other out loud (due to shock, mocking them, etc.).
  • Necessary echoes: If you’re writing a novel scene with lots of characters, many of whom share pronouns, you will probably be “echoing” names more often in these sections, whether with dialogue tags or action beats. This is better for clarity. You want to avoid vague pronoun references.

Use your best judgment when you’re checking your manuscript for echoes. This is also something your editor should be looking for if they’re doing a copyedit.

Happy writing!

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