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Is there an echo in here?!

Repeated words, and terms or phrases used too often: Broken Record Syndrome!

"Repeated words" are instances where the same word, or its root, or a version of it, appearing two or more times in the same sentence for no good purpose; or in consecutive sentences; or consecutive paragraphs, if each individual paragraph is very short.

Notice that the words "sentence," "paragraph," and "consecutive" appeared twice each in the previous sentence — and then "sentence" appears FOUR times in this sentence! There are times when it's absolutely correct to use the same word repeatedly ... but many more times when it's an oversight. You're on the lookout for the oversights, and at all times when you're copy editing, you'll be seeing things like this:

    He leaned both elbows on the railing and, while Samantha brought out the wine, leaned out to watch people in the street, far below. [Leaned]

    The car sped up the highstreet, scattering shoppers to left and right, before it cornered too fast and sped down a sidestreet toward the river. [sped]

    Like fireflies, sparks flew upward above the fire. I watched, half tranced, and hardly noticed as bats flew over from the bridge to the old warehouse. Then an idea sparked in my mind. [flew; sparks/sparked; fireflies/fire]

    Copy editing is actually quite interesting. It doesn't have to be boring, but a lot of writers are quite reluctant to actually get into it, because (and this is interesting) it means they have to read their own work critically, several times over, which can actually be quite hard. [quite; interesting; actually]

    The flags nodded in the breeze overhead, colorful against the brilliant blue sky.Without hesitation Adam nodded his agreement with the ambassador's proposal. [Nodded]

    With a shrug, the girl dropped her bags on the bench. "Oh, I dunno," she grumbled. "Wouldn't you think you'd get help with this sort of trouble? Then again ..." She shrugged the problem aside. "Let's grab some lunch." [shrug/ed]

    The umbrella was wet, and the elderly lady carefully shook it out before stepping inside. A visually handicapped young man was ahead of her at the counter, accompanied by an elderly seeing-eye dog. [elderly]

    With a great splooshing sound, several dolphins broke the surface. Janine turned to see them, but the surface was so bright, she cold only squint. [surface]
The other kind of repeated words are known popularly among writers as (!) "purple light words" ... because a certain author will use a word or phrase so often, it gets to be funny, or aggravating, to the reader.

As a general reader you might not have noticed this; on the other hand, you could easily have stumbled over this sloppy writing in pulp fiction, and even in genre fiction which sells well.

Tip: established writers can get away with blue murder! Best-selling authors are allowed to go to press with some pretty crummy writing! However, publishers, editors and agents won't let a new writer get in through the door with bad writing. You'll think to yourself, it's not fair for the best-sellers to get away with bad writing while newcomers are penalized and rejected ... and you'd be right. But these are the unfortunate facts of the writing life, and you have to deal with them in the only way you can: Don't be good. Be GREAT.

The kind of sloppy writing errors you've probably noticed in published books are briefly outlined below. Be vigilant — don't get into these habits. Editors and agents will notice, and before you're established in the industry, they won't forgive you. Watch out for these:

    He started running... She started screaming ... They started driving... We started worrying... I started suspecting... It started gurgling... He started growling... She started arguing... [

The word "started" will be making readers shudder by page 50. This is slap-dash writing, bereft of good, creative style.

Also, watch out for the dreaded "there was" and "there were" echoes:

    There were several books on the table...
    I saw there were six scones left...
    There were only a few...
    Frank sat down, but there were no chairs left afterward...
    She told me there were eleven kids...
    In the paddock there were nine beautiful horses...
    There were several dozen sheep in the meadow...
    Across the park, there were at least two hundred trees...
    Years ago, there were no high-rise parking lots...
    When I was young, there were trackless wastes here...
    In the state of NSW there were once bushrangers galore...
    There were two big dogs in the garden...
    Mavis saw how there were no adults in charge, and yelled for help...

"There were" and "there was" are so easy to use, and therefore overused. It's fine once or twice, but don't indulge in it four times on every page. A professional editor will pick up this in a few pages, and will know you haven't done your homework. Decades ago (the industry was much more affluent in those days), it was financially possible to assign you a copy editor who would go through the manuscript and tidy it up for you. These days, your editor is on the lookout for the rare manuscrip that arrives on his/her desk not needing this work! If you can get it right before submission, your chances of publication are enormously higher.

Use copy editing to find the over-usages, and use good, creative sentence construction to switch words around and achieve variety in your writing.

The next "purple light word" to watch out for is "that" ... and let's play a game. Could the usages of "that" in the following paragraph:

    That summer, Brenda hired the yellow skiff that was always moored at the end of the jetty. I knew that boat well; I had often taken it out myself, and old Jim Johnson told me that he had been hiring it himself, years before. That little craft had been rebuilt so often that it was more paint and fiberglass than boat! I watched Brenda handle it, and knew that the poor little skiff had reached the end of its life. If it reached the end of that summer unsunk, I would be amazed by that sheer stroke of luck.

The tiny word "that" can soon come to be like bamboo under the fingernails. Editors will see it used up to 25 times on a single page ... say, 8,000 times during a book-length manuscript ... and this is another sign of careless writing. Be aware of what you're doing; use copy editing to pick out ALL the usages of "that" and weed them down to only what you need. Three or four to a page is fine, and correct. More can swiftly become so aggravating, the repetition of these four letters will be cause of your rejection slips!

So, if you're not going to repeat words, what's the plan? Let's work backwards from the wrong answer! Here is an exercise in not repeating the word "said," which results in literary itching powder:

    "Pardon me?" said Jim.
    "I said," repated Sam, "you need to come here."
    "But, why?" insisted Jim.
    "There's something you need to see, " growled Sam.
    "I'm busy," grumbled Jim, "later."
    "It won't be here later," warned Sam. "now!"
    "I haven't time," snarled Jim, getting annoyed now.
    "Suit yourself," sighed Sam. "It's your loss."
    "My loss?" echoed Jim.
    "If you don't see it," coaxed Sam.
    "Let me get this through your head," began Jim.
    "Oh, who cares?" yelled Sam. "Have it your way!"
    "Thanks," bellowed Jim, "I will!"

This little conversation is the exact opposite of using the same word over and over. In an attempt at variety, this writer is using a different verb on every speech line ... and it turns into a "stamp collecting" exercise which shreds the reader's nerves. This can't be called sloppy writing, because the writer probably worked very hard to find a dozen alternatives to "said." The sad fact is, all his/her work was wasted, because the end result is no good.

The trick is to find a happy medium, and find other ways of expressing communication. Be watchful, while copy editing, for passages like this, and try something like this:

    "Pardon me?" said Jim.
    "I said," repeated Sam, "you need to come here."
    "But, why?"
    "There's something you need to see."
    "I'm busy." Jim was grumbling outrageously now. "Later."
    "It won't be here later." Sam's voice held a warning note. "Now!"
    "I haven't time." Jim had begun to snarl as he became annoyed.
    "Suit yourself." Sam breathed a heavy sigh. "It's your loss."
    "My loss?"
    "If you don't see it..." Sam's brows rose coaxingly.
    "Let me get this through your head," Jim began, spoiling for a fight.
    "Oh, who cares?" Sam was sick and tired, and yelled, "Have it your way!"
    "Thanks," Jim bellowed back at him, "I will!"

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