Improve your writing by imitating the greats.
October 1, 2009 5:10 PM   Subscribe

Improve your writing by imitating the greats.

I am a middling writer. I have won college writing awards. I once published two pieces in a national newspaper.

I am eager to learn. At night I often find myself scanning The result is frequently the same, either (i) the articles are old, or (ii) the content is old news, Use the active voice, Delete unnecessary words, or other Shrunkian globules of wisdom.

I have read that there comes a time when you should turn to the masters: Hemingway, Nabokov, Chekov, Kafka. Read them; distill their lessons; imitate them.

How do I do that? Are there specific exercises?
posted by ekpyrotic to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read these masters, or others? If so, I guess I think it's sort of self-evident. These guys have very powerful and unique styles of writing. If you get to know a writer (especially in their native language) you can identify their writing from a mile away. In fact, I find myself unintentionally imitating the masters for a few days after reading them.

I know I'm not really answering your question though. I don't know of specific exercises, but I would probably try to write like them, think like them, observe the world in the way that they do. It's like learning to play all of the beatles songs on the guitar: There's nothing creative or original in it, but the exercise familiarizes you with all of the ingredients of great popular music.

I don't - just what comes to my mind.
posted by crapples at 5:19 PM on October 1, 2009

Hunter S. Thompson completely retyped The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms to absorb Fitzgerald and Hemingway's styles.

I do not necessarily recommend this.
posted by naoko at 5:31 PM on October 1, 2009 [6 favorites]

From a wiki article about the Handy Writer's Colony and Lowney Handy.

A unique aspect of Handy's approach was to have her students spend many hours simply copying, by hand or typewriter, materials from authors whose work she admired.

James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity, is probably her best known protege.
posted by marsha56 at 5:36 PM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would, oddly enough, recommend the book "Story" by Robert McKee.

It's mostly about screenwriting, but the lessons are applicable to any sort of writing. What was a huge takeaway for me is that he goes into writing "from the inside out." Meaning, just looking at how others write and then imitating will not yield very good results. In great writing, what's on the page is just the tip of the iceberg, and 95% of the work is in the underlying structure.

There is no set of "masters" you have to slavishly imitate or be influenced by, but there are principles that great writers have used throughout history, going back to Aristotle's Poetics. And those you might want to learn.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:38 PM on October 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

The copying of existing sales letters by hand is a Known and Approved method of copywriting apprenticeship.
posted by darth_tedious at 5:43 PM on October 1, 2009

Incidentally, Hemingway sort of addresses this idea in A Moveable Feast. He recalls a conversation with a friend over Russian and French writers, where one "learns" by simply reading them (his friend recommends he stick with the French authors, he could learn a lot from them). A more fun way than simply copying the literature is to read it, and if you don't feel like you've learned anything, then you can resort to less exciting version of exploring those works.

It seems that a lot of the great writers have backgrounds that involved a lot of reading, primarily the classics and the authors of their time who had high reputations. Wolfe read Joyce, for example, and Faulkner read Sherwood Anderson, as another. Hemingway in the above mentioned, is in the process of reading Dostoyevsky.
posted by Atreides at 5:51 PM on October 1, 2009

Read some excellent short stories. Write a short story in the style of each author, as if you were going to try to pass it off as a long-lost work. Pay particular attention to grammatical quirks, punctuation, and syntax. Repeat.
posted by charmcityblues at 5:56 PM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't really understand this, to be honest. There is a prof at my college (he refuses to acknowledge the 21st century, and I'm not saying this sarcastically at all) who makes his fiction students not only Copy The Great Masters, but they have to write down who they are copying, and can't mention things such as cars or cell phones or anything relating to the modern era. I've always thought this was really disturbing. Learn what techniques they use, yes, but do your OWN work and style!
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:17 PM on October 1, 2009

Two data points I've read: 1. Ken Wilbur copied Allan Watts' writings by hand to learn his style, and 2. PJ O'Rourke credits his writing talent to his years at Harvard Lampoon, where he had to learn to imitate with perfect pitch famous authors in order to lampoon them.
posted by Jezebella at 6:29 PM on October 1, 2009

Translate. Find a short piece by an author you admire and translate it. Could be between languages or it could be from his vernacular to your vernacular. Either way, you're gonna learn a lot about how they write.

I had the opposite problem from you, I had the problem of feeling like I was imitating other writers, so I went to somewhat crazy extremes to escape that, set myself strict rules about how I could write, eschewed punctuation, etc.
posted by Kattullus at 6:30 PM on October 1, 2009

James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity, is probably {Lowney Handy's} best known protege.

If you read a biography of James Jones, you will not come away from it thinking that Handy was at all a beneficent factor in Jones's life. Or, in fact, that she knew either jack or shit about writing.

Now, she was not the only person to advocate the "copying other people's writing" method, so I don't torpedo the idea based on Handy's lunacy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:41 PM on October 1, 2009

Hunter S. Thompson completely retyped The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms to absorb Fitzgerald and Hemingway's styles.

For what it's worth, a standard way that composers have learned about composition is to copy out scores of the masters. I've never done it myself but I can see how it could be useful.
posted by dfan at 6:44 PM on October 1, 2009

Read the 'Masters.' Read everyone and everything else too.

The important thing you should be doing is establishing your own voice and the only way you'll do that is by writing.

And writing a lot.

You will not learn anything from re-typing the works of others. That's a complete waste of time. Writing is not baking a cake.
posted by ryecatcher at 7:06 PM on October 1, 2009

"In my daydream College for Bards, the curriculum would be as follows:

1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or Hebrew, and two modern languages would be required.
2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart.
3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.
4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking.
5) Every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot."

— W. H. Auden
posted by Iridic at 7:31 PM on October 1, 2009 [9 favorites]

I've read Hemingway, Nabokov, Chekov, and other so-called "Masters" and frankly, I don't see what the fuss is all about.

Write what you want to write and practice the mechanics as you go along. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on - and I suppose that includes the proclaimed masters of the art. But they won't teach you everything. Only you know the stories inside of you, and only you can tell them in your own style.
posted by patheral at 8:05 PM on October 1, 2009

I would take the opposite approach. Find your voice and set it free. And, while you're trying to figure out how the hell to accomplish THAT, find other voices to set free.

Create a character and then write in that character's voice, as if that character were writing the story rather than being in it.
posted by 2oh1 at 9:31 PM on October 1, 2009

I think people here are interpreting what you're saying in too mechanical a way. The point of learning from the so-called masters shouldn't be about a methodological exercise--it should be the unintended result of joyful partisanship. You shouldn't copy someone just because Harold Bloom likes them. You should find a dead author that you think so clearly vocalizes what you would have written yourself that you admire them without realizing that you're being influenced by them. As a young writer, you have the liberty of not knowing very much. Each new work that you encounter will have an exponentially greater effect, as one can only have so many influences in life. Approach this not like a disciplinarian, but as a loyalist, a hedonist.
posted by johnasdf at 10:18 PM on October 1, 2009

I would say, first, read the lads. Find the ones that speak to you --- there will be some good writers that you just don't like, and if you hate reading someone you'll not learn much from them. But the ones that do move you, the ones that do make you heart sing....well, sit down and take out your scalpel. I don't know that trying to write in their style will be helpful. What will be more useful to you is to try and figure out how they achieve the effects you admire. For instance, when I was trying to figure out how to structure a novel, I sat down with Lolita and wrote down a brief list of each chapter, describing the events in a sentence. I was trying to see, how does this story move? How does the information get parceled out? What does he spend a lot of time on? Where does he break thing apart, speed thing up? Often times the most vivid and important passages of a novel may only be a few pages, sometimes even a few paragraphs long.

Of course, the problem in your writing may not be plot structure, it might be something else entirely. But the point is to try and dissect the writing, to come to understand how it functions. And definitely re-read. With really good stuff, often times you're left with an impression, an emotional response to the work, perhaps a profound one. It's not until you've reread it a few times that you can begin to let that emotional impression go and start to feel out the joints and rivets, to notice the early places where the author introduces a motif that will play such an important role at the climax, to see the way symbols bounce off each other, to recognize the qualities of dialog that seperate one character from another.

As an aside,

I've read Hemingway, Nabokov, Chekov, and other so-called "Masters" and frankly, I don't see what the fuss is all about.

Are there any writer you do like? I mean, maybe those lads just weren't your cuppa. But it can't be that no one moves you, can it? Well, maybe it can, it's a strange world.
posted by Diablevert at 11:10 PM on October 1, 2009

I try to read one 'good' book (a book by pick your literary superstar Hemingway, Woolf, etc ) and then a 'bad' book (something from this month's best-seller list) and then something 'genre.' Alternating like this, the differences between become pronounced and the mechanics more apparent.

I also try to read books I don't initially like so I can understand what exactly I don't like about them.

Writing is about re-writing, which is to say that a mastery of mechanics will give you facility with frivolities like character. (Hah ha. See? That was 'humour.')

I've pulled apart paragraphs by writers I've really admired and it is almost always worth the effort.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:35 AM on October 2, 2009

Highlight the best sentences. Choose a different situation, setting, etc., that is, use them as though it is a story of your own. Write novel sentences using the originals as templates to match the new setting.

Riff off of the great sentences. "Shut up," he explained. (Lardner) Try to come up with a dozen versions that emulate its tone. ("Let me explain something." He bopped me on the head.) ("Are you ready?" He pushed me out the window before I could answer.) - these were off the top of my head.

Write in an eccentric voice. This is both freeing as a writer in the sense that you need to get into the rhythm of the speaker and challenging because that voice requires such specific word choices. From an earlier work of mine - "Have you ever seen a fat guy go down on a slice of wuttermelon? It's like they is in constant training for the fur pie Olympics."

Write a scene where you have several of the authors you like at a table arguing something trivial.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:05 AM on October 2, 2009

I've read Hemingway, Nabokov, Chekov, and other so-called "Masters" and frankly, I don't see what the fuss is all about.

Are there any writer you do like? I mean, maybe those lads just weren't your cuppa. But it can't be that no one moves you, can it? Well, maybe it can, it's a strange world.

Sure, I'm a voracious reader, I read *everything* I can get my hands on. I can hardly get through Hemingway's short stories, let alone his novels. I like Nabokov, but I don't think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread (as my Lit professor did), and I like some of the other Masters. My point was that I just don't think that these so-called masters stand that far above the rest of the writing community. I've read books that few other people have heard of and, in my opinion, were much better than anything Hemingway ever wrote.

That's why I think that the OP should read anything and everything and not just set their sights on the "Masters." To me, these guys not the be-all and end-all of literature and the OP can learn much more by reading whatever falls into their hot little hands - even if it's popular fiction or trashy dime-store romances.
posted by patheral at 8:24 AM on October 2, 2009

Response by poster: I selected those authors because *are* my favourites. I'm a disciple of modernism. Thank you for the keen advice.
posted by ekpyrotic at 8:33 AM on October 2, 2009

I have read that there comes a time when you should turn to the masters: Hemingway, Nabokov, Chekov, Kafka. Read them; distill their lessons; imitate them.

How do I do that? Are there specific exercises?

I'm a strong believer in learning by teaching. So.. consider starting a blog (or use your existing one, if you have one) and then studying the writing and producing some articles about these writers' styles for people who were in your original position. I'd read it!
posted by wackybrit at 8:52 AM on October 2, 2009

I think copying, word for word, is a really good thing to do. You'll be learning their rhythm and phrasing and internalizing it. Then you can stop doing that, and go do your own thing, but you'll have a place to start from.
posted by sully75 at 9:47 AM on October 2, 2009

Here's something I don't understand about the question: Are you looking to these guys for an influence on your sentence level style? I.e., how they wrote not what they wrote?

Or actually, here's a better way to put it.

Do you want to learn how hemingway came up with the sentence "For sale: Baby shoes, never used." or do you want to learn how he thought of the image.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 10:00 AM on October 2, 2009

The Teaching Company has a fantastic series of lectures called "Building Great Sentences." The teacher uses many examples from great writers and delves deeply into the MECHANICS of what they're doing and how they're doing it.

In addition to this, I urge you to try your hand at poetry -- NOT free verse. Instead, try very constrained types, such as the sonnet. Stephen Fry (yes, the British comedian) has an excellent book about writing poetry called "The Ode Less Traveled."

Also, check out the book "Spunk and Bite." It's the anti-strunk-and-white manual.

Finally, study Shakespeare as an actor would. I say that because actors need to approach Shakespeare's words in a very nuts-and-bolts sort of way. They are constantly asking things like, "Why does this verse line have a feminine ending?" They look at the mechanics of Shakespeare's language and try to derive his intent -- so that they can better portray it on stage. The best book on the subject is the aptly titled "Thinking Shakespeare." On my blog, I pulled apart one small bit of Shakespeare, the Saint Crispin's Day Speech from "Henry V." [self link.]
posted by grumblebee at 3:42 PM on October 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

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