Why All Writers Should Try Imitation

Updated: Jan 5, 2020

My son likes to play what he calls “The Parrot Game.” You know this game, especially if you grew up with siblings. It’s easy; just copy everything the other person does, especially everything they say. You are the parrot (or the mirror). The game is meant to annoy the person being parroted, and spoiler alert: it usually works.

Inevitably, though, the person being parroted tries to pull a fast one on the parrot. If I say, “I love broccoli,” my son, acting like a parrot, will have to say it, too, and then I’ll never let him complain about his vegetables again. My son, though, isn’t falling for my trick. He knows to change the words just slightly. “You love broccoli,” he says. Like an imperfect mirror reflection, The Parrot Game modifies and begins to change. We are no longer aiming for exact imitation; we’re just having fun.

I like to use this example when I talk about imitation in writing because some writers, especially in the beginning, are very resistant to the idea of imitating other writers. Isn’t that plagiarism, they ask. Why would I want to write like someone else? Shouldn’t I write like myself?

Take it from Picasso: “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”

I’ll talk about plagiarism at the end (I’m an English professor so I care very much about plagiarism), but let’s first focus on why writers imitate. Hands down, when it comes to writing, imitation is one of the most important ways many writers learn. Even experienced writers examine how other writers approached a story, poem, essay, chapter, scene, etc. and then try it on their own as a way of learning.

At first, our attempts may feel like a cheap version of the original, but just like in The Parrot Game, our imitation begins to shift and sound more like us. This is how we begin to recognize our writing style and our own voice, by modeling the work of others.

Note: when imitating, we’re focusing on style and structure rather than content. As Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, says, “Imitation is about copying. Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing.”

Think about things like fan fiction that often serve as homage to the original writer. I can very specifically remember writing my own version of fan fiction (before I knew it was called that) for The Babysitter’s Club and Nancy Drew mysteries. I knew I liked writing and I was determined to figure out how the original author made these stories. By attempting to write chapters much like the ones in my favorite books, I got a feel for techniques like integrating exposition, developing new characters, and introducing conflict. No one ever saw my awful early attempts, but I now think of them as a crucial step in my writing apprenticeship.

To use another example, when I teach dialogue in my creative writing classes, I have a handout and a mini-lecture where I point out the placement of punctuation and discuss dialogue tags. However, I know that students need to practice writing dialogue for it to begin feeling natural. I can talk about it all day, but until they put words down on paper, the lesson is incomplete.

What do I ask them to do? We open up any published story in the book with dialogue (Hemingway is the obvious example) and transcribe the dialogue word for word to practice the formatting and structure. Then we try rewriting it by keeping the structure of the sentences and the attribution (he said, she exclaimed), but changing the content. Instead of two people talking about a cat in the rain, the students can infuse their own situation and characters.

If we don’t practice, they’re next submitted story never fails to make major dialogue mistakes.

It is one of the clearest examples of how modeling someone else’s writing can lead to mastering a technique.

Learning by imitation is one of the cornerstones of how I teach writing (in composition classes as well as creative writing courses). I don’t just talk about it once; we discuss imitation throughout the semester. Modeling goes hand in hand with the idea of reading like a writer, as well.

A note on plagiarism: when practicing the kind of imitation that I am referring to, it is important to think of it as practice. You aren’t going to publish these attempts or convince someone else they are your own. It may help, as you practice, to focus on borrowing structure and technique rather than content.

If you still aren’t convinced, here’s a crash course in remixes, mash-ups, and stealing like an artist. I promise that I’m not the only one who knows the art of imitation.

Whether you start small or go big when it comes to imitation, try making an effort to grasp the concept of imitating. As so many people will point out, it often feels like every good idea has already been written. Your job as a writer and artist is to find a new way to say it, even if your story contains a classic conflict or plot. Your path to finding your own writing style starts with imitation.