I’ve been scarce around here over the past few months. As I mentioned in my blog post of July 26, I’ve been coping with a family medical emergency that has gobbled up much of my time and strength. But I’m glad to say that my mother is doing better, and things are less frantic for me and my family. At least for now.
I don’t know what the future will bring–there is only one direction in which the situation can go, and there are certainly more emergencies to come. So I may disappear again for a while. But for the moment, I’m back, on social media (mostly Twitter, and to a lesser degree on Facebook) and this blog.
This week I’ve got another great guest post from author and writing teacher Barbara Baig, who explains why imitating the styles and techniques of writers you love can be a terrific learning tool.
Imitation is Much More Than Flattery
The word imitation makes many aspiring writers nervous. If they have spent any time in the academic world, then the word imitation will probably remind them of plagiarism, a crime punishable (when discovered) by lowered grades or even expulsion. Everywhere in the writing world—especially on blogs—beginning writers are advised that their work, their story, their writing voice must be unique, entirely their own. For some, this message reverberates so loudly that they refuse even to read other writers, for fear of being denounced as “imitative.”
But fear of imitation keeps writers from making use of a fabulous learning tool, one that humans have depended on probably forever. How do we learn to speak? By imitating the sounds the people around us make. How do we learn to walk? By imitating the way these people move. How do artists learn to paint, baseball players to hit? By imitating the professionals who already know how to do these things. Many professional writers have begun their careers with “imitative” work.
Imitation comes into its own as a learning tool when we use it, not to produce a finished piece of work, but to learn and develop skills. The writers we love give us models of the kind of writing we’d like to be able to do. Many aspiring writers read their favorites, sigh, and say to themselves, I wish I could write like that!
Well, you can—if you’re willing to put your work-in-progress aside and instead devote yourself to practicing skills. Say, for instance, that you love the kinds of words your favorite writer uses. You can pull some of those words out into a notebook and examine them. Are they concrete, sensory words? What sense or senses are they speaking to? Do you like some combination of sounds in a word or group of words? Take note of what you think is good about these words; then practice collecting some just like them.
Now select some of these words and put them into sentences. These sentences will be somewhat imitative of the originals, true, but it doesn’t matter because they are just practice sentences. The practice is training your mind to choose certain kinds of words, to tune it to particular qualities or sounds that please you. The more you practice, the more easily words like these will come to you when you return to your work-in-progress. The sentences you write then will not be imitative, but they will be of higher quality than those you might have written previously, because practice has educated your writer’s mind and ear to new possibilities.
The same thing is true with sentences. Most beginning writers use the same kinds of sentence structures over and over, without even realizing they’re doing so. But skilled professional writers know that to master all the sentence structures available to us in English is to gain a power that enables us to captivate our readers’ attention, to seize and control their emotions. Take sentence variety, for instance. If your sentences are all the same length, your readers will soon be bored. But mix up long and short sentences, using the long ones to lull readers, perhaps, and the short ones to jolt them awake, or create emphasis, and your readers’ experience will be completely different.
Here, again, you can use your favorite writer as a model. Copy out a paragraph or two from his or her work and study the sentences. How many long ones are there? Short ones? Fragments? What kind of effect is this particular combination of sentences creating? Now write a paragraph of your own, imitating as closely as you can the sentence structures from your model. Try to create some kind of effect with this technique of sentence variation. Read over what you’ve written. If you’re not satisfied, try again.
Learning through imitation is not something that can happen in a day. If you really want to improve, you’ve got to devote yourself to practice long-term, just as aspiring professional athletes and musicians do. With this kind of regular practice, though, you’ll learn all the techniques you need to become a skilled writer.
In fact, if you practice enough, perhaps some day a young aspiring writer will be learning his or her skills by imitating your published work.
Barbara Baig is a writer and veteran writing teacher, who is passionate about showing writers what can be done with the English language. She is the author of two books from Writer’s Digest: How to Be a Writer: Building Your Creative Skills Through Practice and Play and Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers. She offers free writing lessons at WhereWritersLearn.com.