Using Echo Exercises to Improve Your Writing


Every so often, I like to do what I call “Echo Exercises.” There are three parts to this: Echo, Reflection,
and Imitation. Altogether, this exercise takes only about
35 minutes. Here’s the breakdown of the “Echo” portion. First, I choose a book or short story I admire
or even one I haven’t read yet but that has received critical acclaim. Oftentimes, I’ll choose a book based on
how much it resembles the tone I’m going for in whatever story I’m currently working
on. For example, if I’m writing a horror story
with an old-fashioned writing style, I might choose a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. If I don’t have the book on hand, I’ll
go to Amazon or Google Books to find a preview. I set my timer for 15 minutes and begin typing
out every word and comma from those first few pages, reading the sentences aloud as
I do so. Since I’m a fairly fast typist, I can copy
around 1,200 words in that time. Reading aloud is a crucial part of this exercise
because it allows you to hear the rhythm of the words. Instead of mindlessly copying the text, you’re
engaging with it on an aural level and letting the musicality of the prose seep into your
mind. After I finish the “echo,” I move on to
the reflection stage. I glance through what I’ve copied and highlight
anything that caught my notice during the echo. That might include an interesting moment of
characterization or an unusual sentence structure. Then, I set my timer for 10 minutes and write
a few paragraphs about my thoughts. I ask myself questions like, “What is the
writer trying to accomplish? How do they introduce characters or the setting? What adjectives describe the overall tone? Does the writer have any style quirks?” For me, the reflection is a time to brain
dump. I don’t treat it like a serious academic
essay; I just let my thoughts flow and examine my highlights within the text. The third stage is the imitation. Based on what I noted about the author’s
style in my reflection, I create a writing prompt for myself. For an echo exercise using Gillian Flynn’s
Gone Girl, I noted in my reflection that Flynn has an enthralling way of depicting abstract
concepts, such as in this piece of description: “Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts
shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes.” Coils, shuttling, frantic centipedes! You can picture AND feel what Flynn is trying
to convey, and the word choice creates a sinister mood. With this aspect of Flynn’s writing style
in mind, I wrote the following prompt: “Employ figurative language or imagery to convey abstract
ideas. Create a subtle horror atmosphere based on
the images you choose.” With the imitation, I might write with a work-in-progress
in mind, describing a character or scene that I’ve been struggling to convey. Or, I might just go with whatever pops into
my head as a way to practice improvising. Either way, I try to write for a full ten
minutes, without stopping or revising as I go. Let me provide a more detailed example of
a reflection and self-made writing prompt to give you a better idea of what I try to
accomplish with this exercise. I’ve never read Stephen King’s It, but
since I was working on a horror story at the time, I wanted to get a feel for how the Master
of Horror generates atmosphere. Here’s part of my reflection on the first
few pages of It: “I don’t mind lengthy paragraphs, but
King does insert a lot of unnecessary detail. At the same time, these mundane details create
a powerful sense of reality. This feels so much like nonfiction. It tricks you into believing that someone
has experienced this life. The writing establishes the ordinary while
also providing ominous foreshadowing, particularly in the last sentence, which describes the
trees: ‘Over his head, a grim gust of October wind rattled the trees, now almost completely
unburdened of their freight of colored leaves by the storm, which had been this year a reaper
of the most ruthless sort.’ The details about the man dying in the flood
is a jarring, violent image amongst the banal descriptions of the flood itself, and I think
that’s an effective technique—hiding the frightening amongst the ordinary. Beyond the dense paragraphs, King also seems
fond of ellipses and dashes. His sentences tend to ramble, and he uses
a huge number of nested clauses. Here’s an example of a nested sentence that
also contains dashes: “He laughed aloud—the sound of solitary, childish glee a bright
runner in that gray afternoon—as a vagary of the flowing water took his paper boat into
a scale-model rapids which had been formed by the break in the tar.” So I tried to analyze the sentences that stood
out to me and figure out how the writer’s choices—as far as both content and style—affected
my experience as the reader. Here’s the writing prompt I came up with
based on my reflection: “Write a dense paragraph filled with mundane details that make the
descriptions sound like a non-fiction retelling. Try to use run-on sentences, dashes, and ellipses. Include a vague omen about the future to make
the reader curious.” For my imitation, I picked a random setting
and let the story roam freely. This was my attempt to imitate Stephen King: “Rust climbed up the side of the old lighthouse,
orange fingers spreading along the scarred white brick. Fifty years abandoned, this place had morphed
from a symbol of Whitehall pride to a private home of an eccentric painter, then to a failed
tourist attraction. The last owner would wander the beaches at
night, muttering to himself—ominous messages about the dark brotherhood, the space people,
The Event—and he would purchase gallons of vinegar from the corner gas station to
‘keep the thought police away.’ Two weeks later, they found the man’s body
splintered at the base of the lighthouse, his bones jutting out in compound fractures
that suggested a fall from a great height…The lighthouse was fifty-two feet tall. Even after all this time, the lighthouse’s
great bulb, bigger than two grown men, had not broken, and some poor soul climbed to
the top of the sagging stairs every so often and flicked the switch to alight the beacon—but
that light would soon invite an unwelcome presence into the city of Whitehall.” Creating a space for myself to consciously
imitate other writers has freed me to experiment with my style without the pressure of trying
to complete an entire story. I have a document where I keep track of all
my echo exercises, with the book title, author, and publication year at the top of each entry,
as well as the date. Typing and reading aloud the words of published
authors is incredibly inspiring. It immediately puts me in the mood to write. I hope it does the same for you. What book would you like to echo? If you try your own echo exercise, tell me
about your experience in the comments. Whatever you do, keep writing.

35 thoughts on “Using Echo Exercises to Improve Your Writing

  1. Hey, amazing videos—and very helpful! Could you possibly do one talking about and describing the structure of making a chapter in a book? … more specifically how to outline this as well as the use of scenes and allow them to flow together within it?

  2. Never have though about echoing exercises but it's really interesting to try out. However, depending on the author one choses, one might be out of one's league. For example, one might like Milton but trying to write like him would mean knowing like 6+ languages and being able to be a literary genius.But it's neat that, in a way, if I write in a genre that is greatly defined by some people, then I do echo their writing. For example, when I write limericks, it's as if I'm echoing Edward Lear – of if I'm doing wordplay and logic puzzles in my writing, then it's like Lewis Carroll.

  3. As a high school teacher, I am always looking for better ways to improve my students' writing. Although I often require them to imitate the masters, I haven't tried the echo method. I really love this! Thank you for sharing.

  4. So you call this echo exercise? Nice!
    I do this most of the time.
    Every time I read a book I write my own "writings" using the methods that are used in the book. But mostly those methods that I liked about, in the book and those I wish were my writing traits.
    .
    .
    Great video by the way!!

  5. Thank you for always being so generous and consise. I often feel that the internet interferes with my concentration, but you're one of the people that makes it worth it.

  6. I would love to try this exercise using the book by, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "Love in the time of Cholera." Thank you for your suggestions, Diane,

  7. To feel what it is like to have written a great novel, I think Hunter S Thompson once typed out the entire The Great Gatsby. That inspired me, and I have tried that trick, I think quite a lot of times in the past, but of course not in such a productive way as you have done here. This is great. This is lovely. Thank you so much. Going to do this right away! Keep writing and keep inspiring, Diane! Love.

  8. It's 2am in the morning and my wife and daughter are sleeping, so I'm not trying this method tonight. But tomorrow I'll give it a try. It looks very useful to start moving your fingers and calling upon creativity. Thanks for this video!

  9. I liked it a lot. It gives you some personal deeper level structure about a particular writer technique, even the words and writing tips that authors offer.

  10. Justin Scott, the thriller writer who broke out with The Shipkiller back in 1980, said he copied an entire novel to learn how to write one. I never could find a reference to which one, though.

  11. There are a few novels I wish I had the talent to write, but if I had to choose only one I think it would have to be Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke.

  12. I have done this with famous poets. I have written several great poems from doing this. I am writing a novel and some poetry using this method.

  13. 1. ECHO: copy as much as you can from the text in 15min, while simultaneously reading each sentence aloud. (15 min)

    2. REFLECTION: highlight details that caught your eye or seem important. Then, for about 10min, write a paragraph or two about your thoughts. (10min)

    3. IMITATION: create a Writing Prompt for yourself based on your observations. You can simply apply some of the authors technique in your work or try to actively imitate their style. (personal decision)

    – Hope this helps for reference 🙂

  14. I definitely use the echo method on my own writing – to check for rythm. As a French-Canadian, I can write in English, but the native tongue finds its way in syntax, and I would rather not have that. If I had to choose, I think I would echo-reflect-imitate Graham Greene; because there seems to be a lot of improvisation (especially in his short stories) in the settings and scene buildups. This is why I think I can't figure out where he's going with a story (and, I think, that's why he kills off many of his characters in such surprising ways). There is something in his syntax and construction that I have a bit of a hard time with. Compared to Le Carré for instance, who leaves nothing to chance, and where there is seldom a useless word.

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