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Lesson 6: Imitating Can be Better

How to try on someone else’s style for size


  • To discuss the principles behind emulating the style of other writers
  • To enumerate the advantages and disadvantages of learning by imitation other writers
  • To demonstrate how writers use other writers as inspiration for their work

Quick Navigation through the Lesson 6:

In an interview, novelist Stephen King said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Writers learn from the authors they’ve read—it’s commonplace for aspiring writers to begin their literary efforts by imitating their favorite writers. However, how far can that imitation go?
In this section, we discuss how mimicry of your favorite authors can help learning and simultaneously hinder progress.

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Imitation and Learning

Though we would like to think ourselves original, the truth is that all writers began by imitating their favorites. To name a few: Billy Collins (now named America’s most popular poet) admits to having emulated Wallace Stevens very heavily in his early work, whereas Cormac Mc Carthy (who authored the acclaimed novel The Road) borrowed extensively from John Milton and Herman Melville—he is quoted as having said, “The ugly truth is that books are made out of more books.”

Human beings learn primarily by imitation, which is why children raised in isolation often don’t learn how to talk. Just as well, writers who haven’t read or studied any authors also cannot learn the language of the written word. We are able to hone new skills only by acquiring schema or stored knowledge, so by that logic: the more books we read, the better we’re able to write.

Imitating our favorite authors gives us a template to work with. We borrow the way they construct their sentences, the way they transition from one scene to another. Their writing provides a Virgil to our Dante—a guide into the often daunting and tedious process of creative writing.

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Imitation and Inspiration

Imitating authors can definitely be inspiring—not only do you get to surround yourself with their acclaimed work, you also get to try on their train of thought. Language is the result of thought and feeling and so to a certain extent, to imitate someone’s style is to step into their shoes, to acquire their line of thinking.

John Milton said, “Copy one, it’s plagiarism—copy two, it’s research.” He was a big advocate of imitating as many authors as you could. He believed that it was only  through trying on this amalgamation of affectations that one could come up with his own style.

Billy Collins, on the other hand had this to say about it: the important thing is that no one can guess who you’re emulating. He said that the key thing was to be able to copy someone’s style without necessarily revealing or making it obvious that you were imitating that person. If you’re able to achieve this, it means that you were able to put your own spin on that person’s style, thus achieving your own voice.

The question, then is this: if all writers start out by copying, then why is it that so few writers emerge as successes? What happens to all the copy cats? Could there be a downside to this method of learning by imitation?

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Imitation and Progress

Ray Bradbury, who sits comfy in the Top 3 position as one of the best Sci-Fi writers of all time has this to say about author-worship, “You may love ‘em, but you can’t be ‘em.”

The thing that delineates people who copy their favorite writers and people who become successful authors in their own right seems to be taking that extra step—begin by copying but also, learn to kill your idols and deviate from their style.

While Bradbury admitted to copying from the greats such as H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he also said that it was important to keep in mind that the world we move in and the world our predecessors moved in are extremely different. And if we never take off our idols’ skins, we will become obsolete.

The arising conclusion to our lesson is that imitation and finding your own voice aren’t two conflicting ideas but are co-requisites of each other: trying on other people’s voices is the only way to find your own. It is important to learn from the giants in the field but it is also important to experiment and add your own special flavor to your work so that you are able to progress. We’ll be learning how to do exactly this in our next lesson.

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We’ll be talking about the different steps you can take to find yourself and your own unique voice. We will also be discussing how you can incorporate this in your creative output—along with its pros and cons. Read on and you’ll be on your way to becoming an excellent writer.




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