4 Reasons to Mimic the Masters—and 3 Reasons Not to

If I say you should copy another writer, would you call the plagiarism police and poke me in a padded cell? If so, get your cuffs and straitjacket ready, because that’s exactly what I’m about to tell you.

Of course, copying doesn’t have to mean stealing. Copying another writer boils down to nothing more or less than mimicry, and mimicry, as we all know, is one awesome compliment. It’s also a gift that just keeps on giving, since in mimicking the masters of the craft, we’re not only paying them homage, we’re also gaining untold benefits for our own writing. Let’s take a look at how and how not to successfully mimic the masters of writing.

How to Mimic the Masters

Setting High Goals.

By desiring to write as well as our favorite authors, we’re forcing ourselves to set the highest of goals for our own writing, instead of settling for any ol’ drivel that dribbles from our pens.

Achieving Good Taste.

In choosing to mimic a particular author, we’re establishing a definitive statement about our taste as readers. We’re deciding what makes a good writer and, therefore, what kind of writer we want to be.

Studying the Techniques.

We can’t mimic unless we first study another writer. To be able to achieve the same desirable effects in our writing, we first have to be able to identify and understand those effects.

Achieving Growth.

The very act of mimicry means our writing will be moving ever upwards and onwards. Even a failed attempt of mimicry is one that will help us understand ourselves and our craft better.

How Not to Mimic the Masters

Plagiarism.

Mimicry may be a compliment, but stealing someone else’s words or ideas is most certainly not. Aside from the fact that it’s unethical and illegal, plagiarism will never be able to give you much in the way of satisfaction or artistic growth.

Laziness.

The desire to be able to write like another author does not give us the excuse to use their stories as half-baked starting points for our own. Fan fiction aside, writing a story that is a feebly disguised copy of Star Wars or The Hunger Games means you’re missing the point—and the benefits—of using another artist’s genius to launch your own unique story, style, and voice.

Giving Up.

Sometimes the attempt to achieve the same effect as a masterful author can leave us feeling like we’ll never measure up. Don’t forget that even the masters had to start somewhere, had to be inspired by other artists, had to grow into their own place of excellence.

More Mimicry Tips

So how do you successfully mimic other authors in a way that will help you learn their secrets while aiding you in discovering your own unique and personal artistic nuances?

Read Widely and Deeply.

Start by reading everything you can get your hands on. When you find an author who makes you go I want to write like that!, read everything he’s written, both the good and the bad.

Read With Attention.

We’ve all heard the phrase “read like a writer,” but what does that really mean? It means reading with eyes that see beyond the story, behind the scenes to the techniques that make it work. Once you’ve cracked an author’s code, you can apply his secrets to your own work.

Copy out Passages.

Sometimes it’s helpful to take the above step a little further by actually copying out excellent passages from your favorite books. The act of writing each word down can make us understand the choice of language and the structure of the sentences and paragraphs.

Experiment With Similar Styles.

Mimicry only works if you put what you’ve learned into practice. Did you enjoy the first-person present tense style in that last Margaret Atwood novel? Why not give it a try in your next book. Did you love the rapid-fire action scene in that latest Brandon Sanderson book? Try throwing your characters into the midst of a mano-a-mano duel in the next chapter.

In a nutshell, mimicry is nothing more than reading, appreciating, and learning from the masters. As artists, there is no better way to improve our own craft than to fall in love with the excellence of someone else’s.

Tell me your opinion: Who’s the last author who made you think I want to write like that?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Yes, yes, yes! We learn to talk by imitating the voices around us. We learn to sing the same way. And we learn to write by trying out ideas, voices, format, tone, and content we’ve heard before, whether we do it intentionally or not. I teach a workshop called “Piggyback Books” where participants pull out elements of existing books to create their own. It’s fun, people learn it’s not “cheating,” and they acquire worthwhile skills and confidence. Thanks for validating the process and for spreading the word. Go ahead, everyone—be a copycat!

  2. Sounds like a great workshop! The point about all of learning resulting, in one sense or another, from mimicry is important in validating our deliberately learning from other authors.

  3. I’d like to mimic Laini Taylor. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was one of the best books I’ve read this year.

  4. Great title!

  5. Would my intent be too obvious if for the question “Who’s the last author who made you think I want to write like that?” I answered “K.M. Weiland”?

  6. Want me to be honest? Charles Dickens, Suzanne Collins, and K. L. Going are my three latest “writer idols” xD

  7. For me, it is authors who can plot out these intricate novel plots – I think, why can’t I do that? why is my brain so restrictive? why does the great black hole hide the wonders? I feel I have good “writing chops” as far as the writing part goes and I think I’m pretty good at dialogue, and such, but when it comes to telling my stories, I worry I am not enough of a plotter-okay, I don’t plot – I meander *laugh*. Which is why I’ve told myself for this next book, I am going to try to be more structured -I bought your book and a few more on my kindle. But, Lawd! I am who I am, so we’ll see 😀

  8. @Lester: I’m honored!

    @The Director: Dickens is one of my perennial favorites. I just discovered Collins, but she has me coming back for more.

    @Kathryn: I hope you find Outlining Your Novel useful! The advantages of outlining are innumerable if you can get them to work for you.

  9. You mean besides you? Second choice: I’m reading Christy by Catherine Marshall. Her descriptions and character development are superb. It’s the first book of hers I’ve read, and it won’t be the last.

  10. Haven’t read that one, though I know it’s a classic in Christian circles. Someone told me the TV series based on the book was good.

  11. I never saw the TV series, but the book is good. I’ll let you know what I think after I finish it. I don’t typically like Christian fiction because the characters are never fully developed, and some authors bang you over the head with the message. So far, that isn’t the case with Christy.

  12. Please do. I’ll look forward to hearing you’re opinion when you’re finished.

  13. Joyce Carrol Oates.

  14. Always a classic.

  15. Salman Rushdie (speaking of setting lofty goals); and his writing style, not content, theme, or personal life per se — and Rushdie mixed with Tolkien.

  16. Now there’s an interesting combination! And, combined with your own unique style, I’m sure it ends up giving your readers something unique and special.

  17. There are three that have turned my crank for different reasons in recent memory. Elmore Leonard for his unique characters and sharp, crisp dialogue. Dean Koontz for his imagery and prose as well as intricate plotting. David Baldacci for great story ideas and pure storytelling genius.

  18. The masses will agree with you on those three. There’s a reason they’re all bestsellers.

  19. Moira Young’s debut novel Blood Red Road really made me sit up and say, “Wow! I want to write like her!” In fact, I’ve read plenty of books this year that have made me want to stretch my writing muscles and try a new style. Reading really is the best homework a writer can do.

  20. Lucky for us it’s a lot more fun than homework has any right to be!

  21. I have a lot of authors with varying styles I want to write like. Everyone from Diane Mott Davidson to Vince Flynn. Honestly, unless the book is absolute crap (and I can say that about very few books I read), I pull little things from every book. The last one that I noticed a lot from was one of the books based on the “Burn Notice” TV series. I really noticed how well the writer had the voice of Michael Westen down–and down PAT. I also noticed how he handled scenes outside of Michael’s point of view, when the rest of the book was written in 1st person. The books may not be bestsellers, but I gleaned something I liked, and hope to use in my own way, from them. Still trying to decide what I can glean from the “written by Rick Castle” books… I’m mostly trying to figure out who is actually writing them!

  22. I just discovered those “written by” Castle books the other night and about busted out laughing. What a great gimmick! I’m not a bigger reader in the genre anyway, and I’m sure those books aren’t the best representatives, but I’m more than a little tempted to buy one just for the kick of it.

  23. My choice: the writers of Dexter. The characters are well-developed and they manage to take the same tropes every season and twist them into a new narrative that always leaves me wanting more.

  24. Originality is perhaps the most difficult ingredient of writing to bottle. If we can tap into its magic, we’re already halfway to success.

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