Friday, January 10, 2014

When Are Echoes Okay in Your Writing?

Anyone who has ever had a story or article critiqued by me knows that I slash through echoes like weeds in Eden. Repeated words, for the most part, create a distracting noise in a reader’s head, like a song that goes on one note too long, ruining the otherwise beautiful rhythm. I don’t like echoes.

Unless they are purposeful and wise.

So when is that?

Anytime someone asks me this question, my first thought for an example usually is John Milton’s works – PARADISE LOST, PARADISE REGAINED, ON EDUCATION, among others. Back in college, woefully accepted by most students, the professor assigned the reading and analytical studying of Milton’s prose and essays. Personally, I was in awe at his work. Through careful observation—in hopes of getting an A—I noted that he used a lot of repetition in his work, but he used it in a specific way.

For instance the word light, symbolic not only in a religious sense, but also in meaning knowledge, appeared in more than one sentence in a single paragraph. Synonyms were used too, but he did not shy away from pulling out the exact same word he’d already used. Why did he do this?

I can’t be sure, but I can explain the effect it had on my reading. As I read a second, third, or even later sentence, I realized it couldn’t be done (reading further) without your brain retracing what was already said, a little echo reminding you of what had been read in the first sentence. Not in a way of beating you over the head with an idea, but in a way where each new sentence reinforced a previous notion or image, while at the same time introducing some new element toward a larger idea, or going deeper into the concept of the idea. Reading his work was like watching a drip land in a puddle, and then watching each ripple as it expands.

Now for those of you reluctant to go back and read something centuries old, here’s a newer masterpiece that also uses repetition in a wonderful way: THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher, published in 2007 by Razorbill, a young adult imprint of Penguin.

Does it echo? Yes, in the most satisfying rippling effect an author or reader could want. (No noise, just beautiful music that’s as enlightening as it is enticing.) It brings to mind the idea that you cannot go forward, without also bringing with you a little of the past. For instance, when you consider an education, your knowledge (everything you’ve learned in the past), has an effect on how you interpret what you are learning today.

So to bring this idea to your writing with intentional repetition brings a deeper meaning that readers may not recognize right off, but it will tease their subconscious into another level of understanding. At least, I think it will.

Asher shows an effective use of repetition on Page 178: (Note, the italics indicate a different character speaking—Hannah.)

(Clay, the narrator.) “… But the headlights don’t gradually fade away, which they should if he kept backing up or turned away. Instead, they just stop.

As if turned off.

(Hannah’s voice.) Looking back, I stopped writing in my notebook when I stopped wanting to know myself anymore.

(Clay) Is he out there, sitting in his car, waiting? Why?

(Hannah) If you hear a song that makes you cry and you don’t want to cry anymore, you don’t listen to that song anymore.

But you can’t get away from yourself. You can’t decide not to see yourself anymore. You can’t decide to turn off the noise in your head.

Notice the repetition of the words turned—used with away and with offaway, stop, and back. In addition to repeating exact words, ideas are reemphasized, such as turned off and stopped. So, when you read a third or fourth sentence, it echoes with the previous sentence. Then it ripples and when you read forward again, you are bringing a little of the past with you.

Considering the fact that this novel is based on the thirteen reasons a young girl committed suicide, and the narrator’s struggle to face and accept it, and then move forward, the repetition is very powerful. Naturally, there will be no movement forward for the narrator or the reader in a novel like this without bringing some of the past along. Asher’s writing style, then, parallels his theme.

We see this technique used again on page 250:                                      

“I want to look back. To look over my shoulder and see the Stop sign with huge reflective letters, pleading with Hannah. Stop!

But I keep facing forward, refusing to see it as more than it is. It’s a sign. A stop sign on a street corner. Nothing more.”

Here the author comes right out and gives us the word forward, “facing forward” and follows it with the word refusing, which is a type of not moving forward. He parallels that, reinforcing it, with stopping. So we see this back and forth motion, two steps forward, and one step back, and then forward again, symbolically laying out how a person moves through life.

If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it.

Now for your own studies, look at the story, “As I Walk Out One Evening,” written by HC Hsu and published by the online literary journal, TOASTED CHEESE. Study the repetition and analyze the purpose for it. Notice how repeated words don’t read like a distracting echo, but a way of somehow restating a truth, further clarifying an idea, giving it a ripple.

In your own writing, if you are not sure whether using the same word again will distract the reader like a screaming echo, or if it will be read as an intelligent choice in going forward, then backward and forward again, don’t use it. Don’t use it until you are confident that repeating a specific word in close proximity to a previous instance of the word, is exactly what you should do.

In the meantime, you can always find a similar word which can do the same work; and sometimes that’s what you want. Something to bring a previous notion forward again, but not as strongly as when you use the exact word a second or third time.  

Before you begin, you might be wondering how you can know if a specific word was repeated intentionally, or if it was an oversight the editor missed.

1.      If you consider the numerous echoes in the short section of Asher’s book quoted above, you can safely assume no editor would miss that many repetitions. Yes, most novels get published with a typo or two, but it’s always obvious that they are simply that, typos. Even then, it’s unlikely you’d find this many in a short space.

2.      Elsewhere, the book is not littered with needless and annoying echoes. So, the logical conclusion is the repetition was planted specifically for a specific reason. It is your job, as the reader, to let that reason resonate in your mind.

3.      When the effect is astounding rather than annoying. My tongue didn’t trip when I read Asher’s paragraphs.

Happy reading and writing!


  1. Thanks for this, Deb. Very thoughtful article, and very helpful. I agree, don't use an echo unless absolutely sure it does what you so aptly describe as "going forward, then backward then forward again." Very much enjoyed your example here. Moving, yet refusing to move, and letting that repetition, that non-echo, work its magic for the reader.

  2. Thanks for reading, Silvia. I appreciate it. Going to drop by your site today too.

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