Many artists have encountered the advice to “imitate the masters.” Aspiring composers generally study, practice and perform pieces by others before attempting to write their own concertos, for example, and visual artists often attempt to recreate museum pieces in their own sketchbooks. This practice of imitation makes a great writing exercise for strengthening your technical skills.
But the way to apply this advice to writing can be unclear. For writers, imitation may be a general idea that they keep in mind while reading or working (“Got to keep my sentences direct, like Hemingway”) or, perhaps, a plan to write certain types of novels based on what’s having success on the market.
Yet, just as with other types of art, practicing imitations directly can be a useful endeavor for writers looking to step up their game.
Here’s how imitation works as a writing exercise:
Once you’ve finished reading a book, a story, a poem, or any other type of written work, write just a few paragraphs or pages in the same style. You can imitate by writing a “missing” piece—whether that be a scene that occurred offstage, a rewrite from a different character’s perspective, or an event that could have fit plausibly within the world of the story—or you can write an imitation that takes place within a separate story. The point, whether using your own characters and settings or not, is to notice the qualities that make that piece of writing unique and emulate them.
Some notable writers—including Hunter S. Thompson, Jack London, and Benjamin Franklin—practiced by literally copying writing that they admired in longhand. Personally, I find more use in imitating than copying, as the former requires you to be a bit more active in the process, but both are useful. (It’s like the equivalent of running on a track or a path versus running on the treadmill: Both will help you get in shape, but one removes some of the mental work of pushing yourself to keep moving.)
Three reasons why you should consider writing imitations.
1. You will learn to read like a writer.
It is virtually impossible not to read like a writer when writing imitations. Even if your initial reading was more about enjoying the text than paying attention to the way it works, preparing for the imitation will force you to go back and think: What makes the voice in this story unique? How does this writer use punctuation? How does the writer establish mood and tone, and what is the pace? What are the effects of the writer’s choices? What could be a plausible addition to this storyworld? How would this character function in a different setting?
2. You will stretch your skills and improve your technique.
Athletes cross-train by practicing multiple sports or exercises to help them improve in their main sport. They may practice movements that aren’t directly replicated in their own sport, but those movements stretch their capabilities and help their athletic performance where it counts.
By crafting imitations of many styles and genres of writing, you may practice skills that feel tangential. (“Why imitate an introspective family drama when you only want to write fast-paced thrillers?” you wonder) But the more skills you add to your wheelhouse, the more you will become a strong, well-rounded writer—and those skills will influence your writing when you do need them.
Alternately, maybe you only want to imitate stories within your genre, and you can still stretch your skills even while you limit your scope. Look for writing that’s strong in areas where you’re weak. Having trouble creating dialogue? You may want to take the characters from a writer whose dialogue you admire and try placing them in your story’s setting. Trying to develop a certain mood through description? Find a successful example of that mood and practice describing something or someone else that fits into the same storyworld.
3. You may find your own writing voice.
Paradoxically, imitating the styles of other writers can help you find your own niche. If you love reading many different styles and genres of writing, you may not know what—or how—you want to write. You may even assume that you should be writing in the style or genre you most like to read. That could be the case, but it isn’t necessarily true for everyone.
As you’re writing imitations in different styles, pay attention to the ones that come most naturally to you and that you truly enjoy writing. What about that style works for you? If you want to write in a different genre, what type of reading experience would result from the combination of that style and your genre?
In addition, as you’re focusing on the styles and sentence structures of other writers, you’ll become more aware of what you like and dislike—and more prepared to make active stylistic choices in your own writing voice.
Of course, there’s an additional challenge for writers creating imitations: Avoiding plagiarism. Just remember that these imitations are exercises, and they should be for your own, personal use. And if you do stumble into an idea on which you want to keep working, make sure to use the imitation as a jumping off point for something unique to you.
Over the next several weeks, keep an eye out for sample imitations and explanations of how they mimic perspective, pacing, mood, and more.