Imitation Is Much More Than Flattery

An article with this title appears in the December issue of The Florida Writer.  It is written by Barbara Baig who is  writer and veteran writing teacher.  The article begins: “The word imitation makes many aspiring writers nervous.  If they have spent any time in the academic world, then the word imitation will probably remind them of plagiarism, a crime punishable (when discovered) by lowered grades or even expulsion.  Everywhere in the writing world – especially in blogs – beginning writers are advised that their work, their story, their writing voice must be unique, entirely their own.  For some this message reverberates so loudly that they refuse even to read other writers, for fear of being denounced as “imitative”.

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Barbara Baig

At first, I thought this would be an article differentiating between imitation and plagiarism, but this was not the case.  Ms Baig suggests to aspiring writers that they should collect, analyze and practice small bits of writing that capture their admiration.  She says, “Imitation comes into its own when we use it, not to produce a finished piece of work, but to learn and develop skills.  The writers we love give us models of the kind of writing we’d like to be able to do.  Many aspiring writers read their favourites, sigh and say to themselves, I wish I could write like that!

“Say, for instance, that you love the kinds of words your favourite writer uses.  You can pull some of these words out into a notebook and examine them.  Are they concrete, sensory words? What sense or senses are they speaking to?  Do you like some combination of sounds in a word or group of words?  Take note of what you think is good about these words, then practice collecting some just like them.

“Now select some of these words and put them into sentences.  These sentences will be somewhat imitative of the originals, true, but it doesn’t matter because they are just practice sentences.   The practice is training your mind to choose certain kinds of words, to tune it to particular qualities or sounds that please you. . . . The sentences you write then will not be imitative, but they will be of higher quality than those you might have written previously, because practice has educated your writer’s mind and ear to new possibilities.

“The same thing is true for sentences.”  (And the article goes on from there.)

I think this is pretty good advice, though a little labourious, and if one focuses on one particular writer, the result may be more like imitation than a unique voice.

With rare exceptions, I try not to read two works by the same writer, preferring to sample the enormous world of talent that’s out there.  As I’ve said before, I don’t necessarily read only popular works with good reviews.  Obscure works with good reviews can be quite interesting, and even if I conclude that the reviewer was overly generous, I will, hopefully, have identified some places where the writer fell down.

When I’m writing, I’ve learned to set an alarm bell to ring when I produce an ordinary, bland piece of text.  That piece has to be re-written so that it is both interesting and carries – in a unique way, if possible – the exact message I want the reader to understand.  You won’t be surprised to hear that I make frequent use of my thesaurus.  Sometimes a slightly unfamiliar word, in combination with others, in a particular context, conveys perfectly the sense that I want.

When I read, I try to keep my ‘writer’s antennae’ active: how real is that dialogue?  can I imagine, readily, the description of that place?  does the character seem unique?  is that piece of text really necessary?  how is this moving things forward?  And so on.

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