Imitating great writer’s doesn’t make you an impostor.
Don’t Be Afraid to Imitate Others As You Develop Your Writer’s Voice
Imitating the work of great writers can help you form the foundation for discovering and forming your own voice.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Imitating something about another person indicates how much we admire it, that there’s something about the person or what they do that you value enough to want to adopt it. We don’t bother imitating something that we don’t like or that we can’t relate to in some way.
Yet sometimes when we do this in writing, we fear it comes from a place of emptiness or indicates a lack of talent. In an article I read yesterday called A Different Kind of Impostor Syndrome by Tom Belskie, he talks about the advice novice writers often hear which is to find your own voice. But he goes on to express concern that he may never find his or if he does he won’t be able to tell.
“While I’m writing or re-reading my already published work, I’m constantly wondering…is this me writing or am I mirroring someone else? It could be the cadence, the attempts at humor, the subject matter…pretty much anything.”
Belskie goes on to say that this can lead to a different type of impostor syndrome in which we fear that if we strip away the parts we are imitating, there will be nothing of our own left.
This belief often occur in writers who may not be complete novices but who are still trying to learn the ropes. They may have initially written some pieces that they felt were good and took pride in this, but when they go back to look at them again they see only other writers’ styles and techniques everywhere.With this comes a sense of disappointment and the belief that their imitation of other writers shows they are they basically just hacks as “real” writers don’t need to do this.
They have heard the saying that there is nothing new under the sun, but understand it to mean only that there are only so many plots of a story, themes of a poem or topics of an article that exist. But they believe that it doesn’t apply to what is taken as the soul of the writer or their voice.
Finding Your Voice Takes Practical Steps Not Mysticism
There is a common belief that the process of finding your voice is somehow mystical or necessitates a “journey” to elicit insight and clarity. The truth is that like other aspects of writing, the way we find our voice is to first put ourselves within the voices of others.
I don’t think our writing voice is something that we are born with and need to “discover” or reveal. I think it’s based on things like our personality, preferences, and the experiences we have had and how they have shaped us. But developing these things into our unique voice requires exploration of what we like and dislike in other writing and what kind of writing and authors seem to call to us. This process provides a structure to enable us to whittle down the huge number of possible elements, styles, voices, language usage, and rhythmic patterns within writing as we determine which of these we want to keep in our toolkit and which we want to discard.
Eventually, we will have developed a collection of instruments, shapes and forms that we will use selectively to create the impression, story and message that we intend communicating it with our own unique style or “voice”.
Determining What Goes In Your Tool Box
The simple answer for determining what you like and don’t like is an obvious one: Read. A lot. When you read to develop a voice, take notes on what it is that appeals to you and what does not. What grabs your attention and why? What makes you stop reading or fails to hook you to begin with?
As you develop a better sense of the types of writing that you admire and enjoy you’ll start to naturally incorporate elements of it into your writing. Don’t panic. This is all part of the process and because it is being written by you and not the other author, the elements will have facets that make them different from the way they appeared in the other author’s writing.
What will eventually happen is those elements that you come to identify with and are able to naturally articulate will become fashioned into something unique as they are defined by who you are and how you express yourself in the world. This process is like the way sea glass is formed. Sharp shards of broken glass are tumbled against sand and stone until over time, they are smoothed into something beautiful. If you find a piece that is not quite smooth you throw it back so it can continue being refined.
If you see a strategy, device or way of using language you really love and want to emulate but when you attempt to do so it sounds wrong or unskilled or it simply sticks out like a sore thumb that doesn’t mean you necessarily need to abandon it completely. Keep it in your tool kit as you continue to grow as a writer. With new skill comes new abilities to find ways to incorporate more complex components into your writing. Your voice will develop and become more refined, more you, over time.
Imitation Doesn’t Mean You’re An Impostor
We are born not knowing how to do much of anything. Everything we are born doing is instinct. Yet those few initial instincts aren’t enough to get us through life. We spend our childhood and adolescence learning the skills we need to successfully navigate the landscape of adulthood.
But while our parents may give us instructions and explain certain things to us, the majority of what we learn about how to act comes from modeling. We observe others’ behavior and its consequences. The behavior that results in positive consequences we imitate and that which results in negative consequences we avoid. The instinct of imitation is part of our makeup and helps us survive.
It’s the same with developing your writing voice. You are drawn to certain authors, certain constructions, certain patterns of writing for a reason. The reason is that it fits with who you are and how you express yourself.
Even the writing masters imitated writers that came before them. Jack London, admitted to imitating Kipling, especially his rhythm and cadence. London said that it was his practice of copying Kipling’s work that led to the development of his own writing style and voice. He stated during an interview that he would not have had the skills necessary or the style of writing needed to produce his most famous works.
“There is no end of Kipling in my work,” London said. “I would never possibly have written anywhere near the way I did had Kipling never been. True, true, every bit of it.”
Suggestions for Using Imitation to Develop Your Writer’s Voice
- Expose yourself to as many different kinds of writing as possible to identify a variety of styles, presentations and elements that appeal to you. The combination of these aspects in a new way will contribute to your unique writing voice.
- Don’t imitate just because you hope your work will go viral like the person whose style you want to copy. This will not help you develop your own writing voice. If you can’t connect with it, don’t adopt it. It will come across as forced and ingenuine. When you imitate what draws you from within, it becomes natural. When you imitate based on the desire to take a short cut to success and achieve the status of others, you’re writing will never seem like it’s yours from your perspective and it will fall flat in the eyes of those who read it.
- Tweek the elements you adopt to make them your own. Don’t try to rigidly stick to the exact style of writers you admire. You may find that you attempt to write as they do for your first draft. But then go back and read with a critical eye and adapt their style as you edit until you are comfortable with it. Read it out loud and edit it again until you are convinced that it sounds like you. It is now in your own voice.
- Pay attention to the styles that seem to come naturally to you and those that you enjoy using the most. Those that feel like pulling teeth are not likely to be aspects you’ll want to incorporate into your writing voice. Those that make things feel easier likely are.
Don’t be afraid to imitate the style of writers you admire. Each of us is unique and it is those unique qualities that will ensure what you adopt becomes your own. When you take up something you see in others it will be different from the form it took with someone else and the form it is destined to take when someone imitates your work. You don’t have to create something from nothing to be a real writer or a talented one.
In fact, focusing on trying to create a voice that is wholly unique without it being similar to anyone else’s and in the absence of exposing yourself to and examining the works of others will only lead to frustration and the belief that you have no writer’s voice within you and therefore aren’t a writer. Read, analyze, enjoy, and soak up the qualities you most admire in what you encounter and don’t be afraid to use them. It’s impossible for you to do it the way it has been done because you are a different person unique in all the world.
Exercises for Using Imitation to Find Your Voice
Read works written by your favorite author’s out loud to be able to hear things like cadence and rhythm. Write down what you seem to connect to in the writing and what you like about it.When you come across something that rubs you the wrong way, read that out loud as well. Write down what you don’t like about it. It’s just as important to know what doesn’t resonate with you as to know what does. Reading something out loud is the best way to hear the author’s voice by getting a feel for how they sound.
- When you’ve finished reading a book, a story, a poem, or any other type of written work that appeals to you, try to write a page or two in the same style. Write about anything you want, the content isn’t important.
- Take a work you particularly like and try writing in the same style a new scene that wasn’t included, something that took place offstage or behind the scenes, a scene from a different character’s point of view or an event that could fit in the story.
- When you read something on Medium that you are impressed by, whether it’s an article, fiction story, or poem, when you are done, try to reproduce the story in your own words using their style (remember this is an exercise so don’t publish it even as fan fiction as it would be considered plagiarism)
Thanks to Tom Belskie for the inspiration for this story.
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