1. waitingforzion
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    waitingforzion Active Member

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    Learning by Imitation

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by waitingforzion, Mar 8, 2014.

    I have seen people promote two different approaches to learning how to write, each with its own supporting arguments. Some say that writers need to develop their own style, and create a unique form and method of expression. Others say that writers can acquire the forms and methods of expression formerly employed by other writers and use them as a foundation for their own style.

    I want to know what your opinion is on these two views.

    I also want to know whether you believe all aspects of an author's style can be successfully imitated given enough effort. I mean such aspects as:
    1. Prose Rhythm and Phonetic Rhetorical Effects
    2. Metaphor and Smiley
    3. Strategy of Exposition, Narration, Description, etc.
    4. Logic and Thought Process
    5. etc

    Is it possible to take the work of an early author, and compose a work that exactly mirrors its style?
     
  2. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    To answer your last question first: I doubt it. To imitate someone like that you need to almost be that person, to feel the same things, look at the world the same way and use the same words to describe it. That is pretty hard to do, Imo. And by the way, why imitate someone else? Wouldn't it be better to develop ones own style? I doubt it anyone has ever reached success by consciously trying to become someone else. That said, I think our style is to some extent the sum of all the things we have read that we've liked and that made an impression on us, but in an inconscious way. It's hard to even have a style before you'v read enough books, That is what I think. At least a style that separates you from the crowd. But then of course it's always a good idea to learn from the writers we like, to pick up a few tricks the use to make us feel the way we feel when we read their books. Writers have been doing that forever, whether they're aware of it or not.

    PS by Smiley, I guess you mean simile?
     
  3. AsherianCommand
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    AsherianCommand Active Member

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    Fully agreed. You may take inspiration, but it does not mean you can imitate that person. You will always come across things that specific writer would not dare do, but you would.

    Each Writing style is different.

    But, trying to be someone else is just a sin. Trying to be the exact same way as another just destroys this whole idea of individually and you lose yourself in the process that different outlook in life is hidden by wanting to copy the other persons work. People read Immanuel Kant not for his writing, but for his opinions, his views on life and his ethics. People read Edgar Allan Poe not for his stories, but for his dark romanticist view of the world.
     
  4. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Yes. Both Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison borrowed heavily from Faulkner's style. They later developed their own styles, which is what usually happens.

    I'm not sure how you can imitate metaphors and similes, though.
     
  5. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    There is a difference between using techniques that other writers have successfully used in presenting their stories and trying to copy every element of one writer's work. We all do some of the former, consciously or not. The latter is, as @Tesoro said, very difficult, although I see that @thirdwind has posted a couple of examples. But styles evolve with the stories they tell. That's why study is so important. It's not enough to read - you need to pull what you've read and liked apart and analyze the elements that worked so well. Then you need to see how it compares with what you do.

    As for which method of learning works best, that depends on your own learning style. My beef with "how to" books is that they are presentations of what someone else thinks works, opinions based on the readings and analyses (s)he has done. Some people do best with such tools to jump start their own analysis. For others, though, they need to see it from the perspective of the work, to see technique emerge within the context of the story. I compare it to the difference between asking someone the meaning of a word or looking it up yourself.

    Best of luck.
     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2014
  6. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    Okay, first problem: are the people saying this successful writers? Are they selling their work? Because if they're not, why give credence to what is, in the end, the personal opinion of someone for whom the method demonstrably doesn't work? Perhaps it someday might, but I'd not stake my career on a maybe.

    Seems to me that if you're looking viable options you should be looking at people who successfully use the techniques they're advocating—or at the very least look for people who achieved success via the suggested method. Relate it to yourself. If you were given the chance to sit down with the author you most admire and talk about writing, and what you might do to improve yours. Would you say, "No thank you. I can get all that by reading your work."?

    Saying that writers need to develop their own style, as though style and education are mutually exclusive is a specious argument.

    If you have a thorough understanding of the field you can get a lot of it. If not... Relate it to cooking. If you eat in a fine restaurant, and admire the chef's skills, but have taken no lessons, studied nothing on being a chef, how in the hell will you copy their style? You won't even know what's in the food, or the steps taken in preparation. On the other hand, if you're a trained chef, you'll take a bite and say, "Hmm...interesting use of..."
    When my son was in college he was asked to compare the work of Poe, Hawthorn and Melville. Rather then list the differences he created a small story, and then rewrote it in the style of each of the authors. I was blown away, and the kid got a perfect grade for it. So the answer is yes, but...

    The but is that while the different stories were noticeably written in the style of the selected author, they were no more professionally written than had he used his own normal style of writing.
     
  7. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Two things. First, the fact that someone has not yet attained success as a published writer does not mean that their opinions are wrong. There are many reasons why someone does not get published. Perhaps their technique is good but their stories are not inherently appealing. Perhaps they've not researched sufficiently to know which agents/publishers are best suited to their work. Perhaps they have other pressing life issues that prevent them from devoting the time and effort needed to be published. So, I take issue with the phrase "demonstrably doesn't work".

    Second, as I have said in other threads, this forum is comparable to a study group. Very few of our members are published writers. The rest of us are learning as we go. We share what we learn with each other. There are several members of this forum whose advice I take very seriously. Only three are published writers. And I give the advice of one of them particular weight. Like the law school study group, we teach each other.
     
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  8. vera2014
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    vera2014 Contributing Member

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    I think another person's style can be adopted to a degree where other people will say "Hey, you remind me of [author name]." There are lots of authors I admire however I don't know if I'd want my writing voice to sound really close to someone else's. I think in general that I study their work to take note of what I like best about their style in hopes that my writing will contain all the best things that every author has taught me. I would try to write as well as I can while being mindful of basic rules (like the book I read that listed what not to do when writing a novel). I'm just learning how to write so one thing I'm working on is being more aware of all the senses in everyday life. For example, one author described a flower stem as waxy and I get really impressed with this kind of detail--it's a whole new world to me.
     
  9. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    It isn't an either/or proposition. You can certainly develop your own unique style by imitating others. Countless musicians have done it. Duke Ellington was one of the most brilliant and original composers in American music history. But he began by listening to and imitating ragtime piano players he heard in Washington, Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

    Some people lack that spark of originality. But if you have it, you won't kill it by imitating others as a means of learning the nuances of different styles and techniques. I suspect it's more likely that your originality will be nurtured by that process.
     
  10. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    Why would you want to imitate someone else's work/style? All that does is mark you as a mimic. It's fine to learn from it, but I'm also learning by reading bad scripts. It teaches me what does not work.
     
  11. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Notice the thread title:

    Learning by imitation

     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2014
  12. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    I meant learning sentence construction, melody, etc. Not how to imitate.

    A time back, I was trying to imitate HP Lovecraft. Then I realized I was just trying to be a mimic.
     
  13. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I don't necessarily believe it's an either or. The development of your writer's voice isn't pulled out of thin air. It comes from everything. If you look at what published authors read/have read you can see them picking up things they like and adding it to their own voice/style. Voice is like a patchwork quilt - it's you - your experiences your beliefs, your pain, your love, but it's also what you read, who you admire, who you study. It's everything. It's not difficult to believe Nabokov read Poe. But Nabokov didn't become a Poe imitator - he was Nabokov, and Martin Amis who read Nabokov didn't become a Nabokov imitator but made a name as Martin Amis.

    The trouble with studying a favorite author is you get tunnel vision, and if you're favorite author is genre, you're doing yourself a double disservice. King's already got tons of imitators, one more isn't helping the horror genre or your career as being the next Stephen King. But say if you take Stephen King & Virginia Woolf study them, add bits you like to your style then you might have something interesting to offer to the world of horror. And become better than Stephen King.

    I take what I like from all kinds of writers - I love Nabokov's beauty but he can be too wordy for me, I like Hemmingways brevity so I combine the two - beautiful brevity.
     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2014
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  14. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I've related this story before on the forum - talking about this very subject, in fact. But it bears repeating.

    Many years ago, when my son was languishing in a poor program for kids with learning disabilities, there was a major war going on regarding what was the best method for teaching youngsters how to read. In one set of trenches were advocates of the Whole Language approach; in the other set of trenches, advocates of the more traditional Phonics-based method. Whole armies were arrayed to throw white-paper grenades at one another, and the issue permeated at least one local school board election in our district. By the time my son was 11, he was still stuck on a mid-first grade reading level, and we compiled enough documentation to have the city refer him for a private placement.

    Shortly after the new school year began, there was an Open School Night. I went and talked to all his teachers. When I got to the Reading Teacher, I asked whether he adhered to Whole Language or Phonics. He asked me, "Do you have a tool belt at home?" I did. "Do you have more than two tools in it?" Yes, I did. "Same thing with teaching. I don't limit myself, because each child is different, each reacts to different methods. So, if Whole Language works, I use it. If Phonics gets it done, I use that. Or a mix of the two. Or any other method. I'm not interested in ideology, I'm just interested in success." At the end of that school year, my son was reading at an 8th grade level.

    I suggested starting with the works you have most enjoyed reading because if those stories resonated with you, chances are you will be predisposed to write in similar fashion. But it is also important at times to stretch yourself, read things you wouldn't normally read and take in ideas you might not otherwise have considered. My own experience has been that my writing style, as well as ability, has evolved over time, both from my writing experiences and my reading experiences.
     
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  15. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    I hope they pay that teacher well.
     
  16. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Not well enough, IMO. At the same time, it shows that all the potential in the world is useless if no respect is paid to the student's learning style.
     
  17. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    Nor does it say they're right. And the one getting the advice has absolutely no way to tell if it's accurate, or based on bad data. Why take it seriously when the odds say the one giving the advice isn't a reliable source of professional information?
    So what? For whatever reason, demonstrably, they cannot create prose that a publisher is willing to say yes to. A stopped clock is right twice a day. But the only way to tell when that is is to consult a working clock. But you're suggesting we gather a roomful of nonworking clocks and consult them—without checking on what the accurate clocks say. Doesn't seem the best way to become a pro in any field.
    Not even remotely. Here's the Wikipedia definition "A study group is a small group of people who regularly meet to discuss shared fields of study. These groups can be found in high school and college setting, within companies, occasionally primary/junior school and sometimes Middle School/Intermediate.
    Professional advancement organizations also may encourage study groups. A study group makes use of professional sources of knowledge and discusses it."

    When was the last time you saw a thread discussing the merits of one author or teacher's approach as against another's? The answer is pretty close to never. What you hear is, "This is what I do." presented in many cases by people who have never talked to a successful writer, publisher, or agent. Bear in mind that I'm not belittling the value of the members here. But this is not the place to learn any profession because the people espousing the various approaches ore all too often not professionals.

    Why would anyone seek amateurs as the source of your professional knowledge—especially when the professionals are so readily available?
    .
    By pooling ignorance and hoping that it's additive? What do we learn from someone who believes that point of view has to do with which personal pronouns you use? What can you learn structure from someone whose writing is a transcription of themself speaking the story aloud? And you sure as hell can't learn the elements of a scene, and how to introduce and manage tension from someone who still believes that a scene on the page is defined, and constructed in the same way as one in film or stage.
    People took seriously the advice that bleeding patients helped them get better. People once took manifest destiny seriously. What did that have to do with the concept being accurate? Has their advice resulted in a sale for you? No? Then the jury is still out on it being good advice.

    It's easy to talk someone into doing what they wanted to do in the first place. So when someone suggests something that seems to make sense to you, you accept it and call it good advice. But unless you give that advice the reasonability test of comparing it to what the publishers say they expect to see you may well be happily heading down a path that guarantees rejection.

    But forget that. Look at the success rate. This is one of many such sites. It's a damn good one. But if, as a group, we were what you say we are, and are contributing to the rate of successful publication. there would be more successful writers posting here all the time. What kind of study group takes members who are achieving a failing grade, and without external mentoring and knowledge, works toward getting a passing grade without success?
     
  18. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Jay, I have no difficulty discerning those who are drawing from a basis of knowledge and those who are just posting based on how they feel. More on that below. Besides, a lot of what is discussed here is not provable based on empirical data.

    There is a significant difference between "cannot" and "has not yet".

    Yes, I'd call that a pretty good definition. My first experience with a study group was as a senior in high school, as part of an experiment in independent studies in physics. We met every day in the library instead of in class, read the text and other articles and discussed them. We were all 17. The teacher checked in on us once a week and provided minimal guidance, and we really taught each other. I had other experiences in college and graduate school, including while doing doctoral work, and finally as a professional - I bailed on the PhD because college faculties were contracting at the time, not expanding, so I went into tax accounting, which allowed me to merge my love of law with a business career. As a professional, I was a member of several tax study groups, in which we compared our take on various tax controversies and derived individual tax strategies from them (this is the only aspect of being on the corporate side that I miss).

    Now, you'll be quick to point out that none of my examples are exactly the same as what happens here, and you'll be right. But, to be fair, I did say "comparable to"; I did not say they were the same. So let's look at where that comparison breaks down. In all of my examples, the members of each group were on more or less equal footing - either all students or all tax professionals, but with varying levels of ability in the former case and experience in the latter. In the case of WF, the divergence in ability, experience and expectations is many times greater - infinitely greater. Membership is not limited (other than the very occasional banning, never due to lack of knowledge), nor is there a minimum knowledge requirement. So, yes, there are many responses that are flat out wrong. But in those cases, the error is usually pointed out very quickly by one of the more knowledgeable members, most of whom are readily recognizable.

    In my view, this does not negate the "study group" value we can derive from WF but it does imply some caveats for its use. I employ three. 1) Consider the source. 2) Don't rely exclusively on WF to gain professional knowledge. No matter how good the source is or the advice, someone who aspires to be published needs to do his/her own homework. 3) In writing, there is sometimes more than one right answer.

    Actually, there have been lots of threads in which posters cite examples from various works. But I think you mean a critical analysis of one to another, and in that sense you are right - not nearly enough.
     
  19. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Why don't you start one, Jay? I would definitely love a more challenging discussion on literature.
     
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  20. Fizpok
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    You can learn by imitation. My favorite approach is to add a chapter to a someone else's book, trying to preserve a style and a story line.
     
  21. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    In my limited experience, imitation is a good exercise by which you can practice things like voice, tone, and pace. By trying to imitate successful authors style, I also learned that you can start to tell where you differ from them. That is, many times we read something, then when we write, we think we're writing just like it. Sadly when we re-read the original and our version, it turns out we made mistakes like adding too many adverbs or an unnecessary sentence or something weird based on our experience with nonfiction prose. Recognizing those subtle differences can be a huge benefit.

    Further, imitation is a good entry point for discovering our own voice or even learning how to manage character voices. Once you have some experience doing this with different authors and you start writing more of your own work, you begin to develop your own flavor, if not a little tinted by other authors. What I find is that imitation is also somewhat natural. We tend to imitate what we've read most widely and most recently (good or bad).
     
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