The art of imitation.
Even as someone aspiring to write, I was never fond of reading. Really, I hated it. I thought it was boring, much too passive.
Although my English teachers constantly advised me to read, I didn’t listen. I didn’t listen because I didn’t understand how great of an impact it could have on my writing – until I tried it.
I began to read shortly after I graduated high school. And once I finished my first book, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, there was no turning back. I read all kinds of books. I read fiction, philosophy, political, and spiritual books. I was hooked. But most importantly, I was learning to appreciate the art of writing.
Although I’m still learning, I would advise any aspiring writer to read as much as you write. Read a lot. Read until you desperately crave a daily meal of words, chapters, prose, and all the beautiful intricacies of written work. Being a good writer is more than just writing a daily journal or posting a weekly blog post. It’s about soaking in as much as you can through reading, then pouring out as much as you can through writing.
I’ll be the first to admit that a daily practice of writing is more than necessary for any writer; it’s an integral part of refining your technique. If you don’t write religiously, your writing will stink. However, to evolve as a writer and to hone your craft, you need to embrace a life of reading, as well.
Not only does reading inspire you, expand your knowledge, and enhance your vocabulary, it’s also enjoyable. Well, that depends on what you choose to read, so choose wisely.
Imitation Breeds Originality
Imitation breeds originality. It really does.
Imitation has always been a vital part of mastering any craft or sport I have pursued. It might seem ridiculous in hindsight, but I once thought I could make the NBA. I played varsity basketball in high school, and to sharpen my skills, I watched countless YouTube videos and NBA games of my favourite players, Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan. I meticulously studied every one of their moves; I put them into practice and made them my own.
I also intended to pursue hip-hop as a career. I imitated the greats, more specifically, Tupac and Nas. I studied their songs, their rhyme schemes, their flow, and their delivery. I mimicked with precision. My rapping skills evolved as I put what I learned into practice, and in due time, I discovered my own style. And although I am not a famous rapper – and don’t know if I ever will be –my rapping became original.
The Beatles also embraced the art of imitation with their music, and though some might not agree, I believe they had a distinct and original sound despite emulating other musicians. According to Austin Kleon in his book Steal Like an Artist, Paul McCartney once said, “I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. We all did.”
The Rock n’ Roll legends learned from the greats before them, and they also became great. So if this is true for basketball and for music, why would it be any different for writing?
Imitation for the Writer
The art of imitation in writing happens through reading and studying the works of other writers that came before you. An abundance of creativity and skill lives within the pages of books, magazines, articles, and other written materials.
Why not learn and steal techniques from great writers? Why not analyze the way they build plots? Why not study the way they structure sentences, dialogue, and suspense? It would be a foolish thing to ignore and bury these valuable gems.
British author Michael Moorcock said, “Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.”
Mr. Moorcock couldn’t have said it any better. Copy and learn from the masters. For him it was Conrad, but maybe for you it’s Hemmingway or Atwood, or maybe it’s Angelou if poetry is where you thrive. Whatever genre, the principle remains. Imitate.
For me it was C.S Lewis. I was fascinated by the way his writing painted vivid pictures in my mind. The child-like perspective and simple yet witty sentence structures in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe inspired me to study more of his works, including Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity.
I analyzed the way he constructed his sentences, where he placed commas, how he presented dialogue, and how he transitioned from one idea to the next. It took time. And it took a whole lot of effort. Trying to learn a writer’s technique is not as fun or as simple as reading through the story, getting lost in the plot, then finding yourself back at the end of the book.
Imitating writing techniques requires active engagement with the book. I had to pause at times and ask myself why Lewis made certain stylistic and grammatical decisions in his writing. Then I had to pick and choose what to store in my writing arsenal and what to leave out.
I love collecting new ideas, words, and perspectives. Every time I read, I discover new words and new ways to use them. In fact, I love the way certain words look and sound in a sentence. But what fascinates me the most is the effect a word or sentence can have on my emotions when cunningly used by the writer –especially when it happens effortlessly, without trying to be clever. Now that is what I call skill.
Don’t Cross the Line
Although imitating great writers improves your writing, it can also thwart your potential if you neglect the practice and pursuit of your personal writing style; or even worse, you could unconsciously copy their content and claim it as your own.
If you spend all your time reading and studying technique, while neglecting to practice your own craft, you will find it difficult to produce original content. Trust me. I’ve been there. In fact, everything you write might sound like a bootleg version of the person you are imitating –the farthest thing from originality.
The art of imitating is not about sounding identical to another writer; instead, it’s all about mimicking their techniques and principles and deciding what to cultivate and what to dispose of.
Only by honing your craft through consistent practice will originality have a chance to bloom in your writing. You need to write your own stuff. Write until the techniques you mimicked from other writers get filtered through and molded into your personal and distinctive style.
Nevertheless, imitation is pertinent to every form of writing: creative, academic, periodical and even technical. If you want to write a technical document like an instructional manual, study your smart phone’s manual.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” (Stephen King)
Read a lot and write a lot. Take advantage of the abundant writing material at your disposal. Fill your writing arsenal with versatility, experience, and inspiration. Expand your imagination and give your writing wings to fly beyond limits. Imitate the greats and create originality.
And just in case you forgot, read like your writing career depends on it –because it just might.
Header image by Stewart Escalona.