Learning often begins with imitation or copying. As babies, we learn facial expressions and gestures by mimicking adults. Children learn to write their letters by copying them from workbooks. And can you imagine a musician learning their craft without first leaning to play other musicians’ songs?
But we rarely explore the question of whether writers should copy the work of great authors as a learning exercise.
Imitation Learning vs. Derivative Works
In the world of fine art and entertainment, imitation is sometimes viewed as flattery, but mostly it’s criticized for its lack of originality. Works that appear to be based in part or in full on other works are called derivative works. Some derivative works are celebrated — for example, writing a variation of an old fairy tale or writing a modernized version of an ancient text. Other times, these types of works are criticized and ridiculed as lacking originality. Each work should be judged individually and on its own merit, and opinions will vary.
However, today we’re not talking about the writing that we publish for the world to see. We’re exploring the idea of using imitation strictly for the purpose of study, practice, and learning.
Using Imitation as a Learning Tool
When I was a kid, I often wrote down the lyrics to my favorite songs. I would play the song, pausing and rewinding it every few seconds to figure out the lyrics. Sometimes, I’d write my own lyrics to the tune. I believe this formed the foundation of learning musicality in writing, which I later applied to my poetry. As a young poet, I discovered Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” While I didn’t set out to imitate this amazing poem, I did set out to write a poem that was inspired by it (and somewhat modeled on it). All these years later, I suspect that if I shared that old poem of mine (which was titled “Woman One”), any knowledgeable poet would know that I’d read Maya’s work and was influenced by her.
All of these exercises helped shape my writing skills. When you copy the words that someone else has written, you study them more closely than you would by merely reading them. But notice that none of these exercises resulted in published works. It was a form of study and practice.
Who hasn’t buried themselves in a novel, only to put it down and find the voice of the narrative continuing inside their own mind? Copying a text can have the same effect, but it works faster. It’s a useful way to learn how different authors structure sentences or make word choices.
When I was in a college literature course, we took a test that required us to identify authors’ voices. We were given short excerpts from various authors’ works. We weren’t expected to memorize these authors’ repertoires, but we were expected to absorb their voice (style). A good way to do that is to copy passages from the authors’ writings. The act of typing (or handwriting) their texts helps us absorb it much faster and more thoroughly.
But that’s not all we can learn from imitation. Let’s say you’re a beginning writer with a favorite story. You don’t want to emulate the story or the author, but you want to gain a better understanding of how this author constructs language or how they developed such a distinct voice. Studying the work might not be enough. As an exercise, you might attempt to write a few pages of your own original text in the author’s voice. This would also be a useful exercise for developing voices and distinct dialogue for each of your characters. You could seek out writers and speakers whose style matches the voice you want for a character. Spend some time transcribing or copying the source material, and then practice writing your character’s dialogue in that person’s voice
The Necessity of Learning
There are many ways that authors borrow, build upon, and steal other writers’ ideas. There’s really nothing new under the sun — only old ideas remixed and rehashed into works that feel fresh and invigorating.
But however we gather our ideas or develop our craft, learning is a necessity. We must do the work to develop the skills we need to achieve our goals. For writers, that means studying language, mastering vocabulary, and learning structure and form. Not all writers need to learn through imitation. Each of us has a different learning style, but for those who would benefit from imitation as an exercise, it’s a worthwhile endeavor for skill-building.
Have you ever used imitation to develop your knowledge or skills? What did you imitate and why? Did it work for you? Share your thoughts about imitation as a learning tool for writers by leaving a comment, and keep writing.