Writing Exercise: Mimicry, Part I

How to develop your writing style by trying on others.

By Rachel McGinnis Meissner

A writer’s voice is an ever-changing product of practice and exposure to others’ work. Much in the same way that we carry with us a gesture, a mannerism, a charm from each person who has influenced us in life, writers absorb structures, themes, cadences, and lyricism from authors. These essential adoptions in daily reading and writing practices add dimension to the timbre of writers’ voices and invite us to revisit classics and seek out new authors as part of our growth.

For novice writers, developing a voice is a critical challenge; some novices shift rapidly through styles and avoid cultivating a unique and mature voice while others stick with what they know and remain underdeveloped, firmly situated in a comfort zone. It can be hard for young poets, for example, to land confidently in a new verse structure. (If couplets are your cup of tea, why switch and brew up misery?) And it can be easy to write off a style without trying it out. Some fit like gloves while others seem to be shoes on the wrong feet. Growth. It’s a necessary, painful, and experimental stretch that can be eased through intentional development of voice. Enter the art of mimicry. Tell us all about it, T.S. Eliot:

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne. (“The Sacred Wood,” 1921)

According to Eliot, it isn’t so much about whether or not a writer will take from the masters (that’s a given, and you’re likely doing it to a degree without noticing); his test of a writer’s worth hinges on the quality and uniqueness of the resulting work. It takes exposure to great work and experience to develop into the “good poet,” and a writing practice that centers on absorption can take writers from the immature imitator to the master with a unique voice.

The first step of absorbing great work is analysis. All writers benefit from analyzing the work of influential authors — it doesn’t matter if you’re a poet looking to a novelist or a journalist looking to a screenwriter. Here’s an exercise to encourage you to seek out those who inspire you, and then I hope you’ll take some time to reflect on their work.

  • Identify a favorite author and one work from that author.
  • Identify what appeals to you about the author’s writing. Theme? Sentence structure? Narrative arc? Character development? Explore what is appealing about the handling of the identified elements.
  • Identify what doesn’t appeal to you or something that rings untrue in the work. What’s going on in the work at those turns?

Eventually, you’ll want to identify a sentence or paragraph that is particularly striking to you. Bookmark that page! We’re going to need that excerpt for the exercise that will be in my next post, “Writing Exercise: Mimicry, Part II.”

This post was originally published on the St. Edward’s University Online Writing Lab blog on February 21, 2017.