Imitating other writers' styles; using professional readers
Published: November 6, 2007
|When I write, I often mimic whatever I'm reading. Is this helping or hurting me? |
In The Battle of the Books, Jonathan Swift uses the allegory of the spider and the bee to illustrate the importance of looking outside oneself to create. Swift reveals the weakness of the writer who is autonomous, like the spider that creates a web only from what already exists within. The bee, however, wanders the natural world and takes from it to create honey and wax. So, too, can the writer increase the richness of his work, by examining and drawing from outside himself.
Reading is one of the most effective ways to expand your awareness and understanding of the tools at your disposal. Imitating another writer's style allows you to practice those tools and to see how they work in your own hands. In fact, many writers do this deliberately to expand their skills. Study and practice Andre Dubus's lush, meandering sentences for the beauty and suspense they create. Or Hemingway's unsentimental and economic style for the brand of honesty it offers. Or Kerouac's lyrical use of language for its musical quality.
Still, imitation is a sort of costume. Just as dressing up in a sailor suit and carrying a pipe to look like Popeye won't make you genuinely strong, so, too, imitation can lead to a surface-level illusion. Use what you learn from the act of imitating to develop your own writer's voice; to expand your options and help you make better choices in your own writing. When you have a thorough understanding of the use of, say, clipped, bare prose, and the nuances of how you create it, you have a better idea of when to use it in your own work, and when to avoid it.
One way to take control of imitation and to use it to strengthen your writing is to be more deliberate about it. Pay attention to the choices the author makes as you read. If you appreciate a particular effect, study the prose to learn how the writer created it. Apply those choices in a passage of writing. Look at what effects are created when you use those same techniques. Take into consideration how it works with your own tendencies in writing. This process of analyzing will make you more aware of when you're imitating, as well as how to adapt those new skills into your own writing.
Once you develop this awareness, you can keep better track of your own choices. If you're reading Hemingway but don't want his style in the story you're working on, that awareness can be enough to keep you from slipping into imitation. And if you find this is still a tendency, you might choose your readings accordingly, making sure your reading compliments what you're trying to do in your own work.
Be the bee Jonathan Swift champions, but keep in mind this isn't simply the act of taking. It's the act of taking in, and using it to work with your own unique skills and choices. You want to make writing that is rich, and distinctly yours.
Should I hire someone to edit my manuscript before sending it out to agents? If so, do I want an editor or a writing coach?
It never hurts to have another set of eyes on your manuscript before you send it out for consideration. Readers are an important part of the revision process and can help you see weaknesses you're not seeing on your own. Writers go about finding these readers in different ways. Some will exchange work with other writers they trust to improve their manuscripts. Other writers who are looking for structured guidance, or who may not have the good fortune to have helpful readers in their life, might hire someone who works in this capacity. If you go this route, finding the appropriate person can seem overwhelming. How do you know the person is reputable? How do you know if the person will understand and work with your intentions? And with all those titles out there--writing coach, instructor, editor, proofreader, book doctor--how do you know who to call?
Start by clarifying what you need. Do you want someone who will help you strengthen characterization, work out plot tangles, and comment on believability? Or do you want someone who will only clean up the grammar, catch typos, and correct misspellings? Once you determine your needs, start your search. People who do this kind of work use many different titles and offer different levels of service, so make sure you are clear on exactly what a particular organization or person is offering, so you don't end up disappointed.
Begin with reputable writing organizations to see if they offer such services or if they can recommend people who do this work. And ask your writer friends for recommendations. If you come across someone who seems to fit your parameters, but still aren't sure, ask for recommendations and contact those former clients to ask about their experience.
With longer projects, like a short-story collection or a novel, start with an initial consultation of just one story or one chapter. That can give both you and the editor a sense of how well you'll work together. If it's not a good match, either of you can bow out gracefully.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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