Saturday, 4 February 2012

Emulate but don’t copy – Part 1

We all have favourite authors and poets. We all enjoy the way they create and weave their literary magic. They inspire us, motivate us and help us grow as writers; however, that’s where writers should draw a line because it’s easy when you start out fresh to writing to want to be just like your favourite authors, and that can lead to all sorts of problems. 

The main drawback is that many writers tend to copy favourite authors thinking that this will bring published success. But is copying them such a bad thing?

There are several problems with copying, or trying to be too much like the authors we admire. Here are some of the pitfalls:

  • Lack of voice
  • Lack of style
  • Nothing is learned
  • Their mistakes become your mistakes
  • Bad writing habits

Many new writers read the likes of Stephen King or JK Rowling or David Baldacci et al, and are immediately predisposed to that style of writing, they want to be like those writers, but they forget that for years, these authors have developed their own unique ‘voice’ and style and literary nuance, but this is something that all writers must find while developing their own way of writing. 

Lack of voice

Borrowing someone else’s ‘voice’ just doesn’t work. Established authors have their own distinct tone and style; they’ve spent years perfecting their craft, to hone that unique ‘sound’ in their work. So when someone tries to write like that, it becomes forced and contrived. Also, there can be a distinct lack of creativity within the work, simply because the writer hasn’t taken the time to grow and develop his or her own voice.

The ‘voice’ is like a fingerprint. It’s exclusive to the writer and should, once developed, distinguish you from other writers. It’s a powerful device - people will get to know your writing because of your writing voice alone.

Lack of style

This brings us to style, or lack of it. Trying to write the way a famous writer does may mean you can’t develop your own style.

Like ‘voice’, writers must also develop their own style. This could be lush and descriptive, it could be sparse, it could be gritty, it could be literary etc. Whatever the style, it should speak to the reader it its own way; one that the writer has cultivated and developed themselves through practice.

If you are writing too much like other authors, taking their tone and technique and approach, you will find that you don’t actually learn anything as a writer. Writing is always a learning process. The more we write, the better we become. 

Trying too hard to write in a style that isn’t really you will come across as false and dull. Your style is yours alone, no one else’s.

Nothing is learned

As previously mentioned, writing is all about learning. Being published doesn’t mean a writer stops learning. Writing development never stops. Relying too much on the way your favourite writer does it means that you bypass that learning process – nothing is learned. 

Writing the way we do, with our own voice, our own style, means we learn about the craft, we learn about ourselves as writers – what we’re good at, what we’re not so good at, and through that process, we create our own path to improvement.

Be inspired by others, practice, learn, but don’t copy.

Their mistakes become your mistakes

Established authors make mistakes, some famous ones are not beyond dropping a few howlers too, so when new writers find themselves copying the way their favourite authors write, they also assimilate the kind of mistakes that all writers should avoid, things like tenses, poor sentence structuring, telling but no showing etc.

Make your own mistakes and learn from them, but don’t copy others’ mistakes because ultimately you will become ignorant to becoming a better writer.

Bad writing habits

That brings us to bad habits. Ever had driving lessons from your parents, then when you get a driving instructor, you’re given contrary advice and told how to do things properly? That’s because you’ve picked up your parents’ bad habits. The same is true of writers. No writer is immune; we all have bad habits. 

The problem here is that beginners become so focused on trying to be a writer that they absorb everything from their favourite author, and that includes bad writing habits (things like hanging participles, fragmented sentences, alternating tenses, lack of observation etc) and they use them in their own work, thinking it will immediately get them published.

By all means let other writers influence the way you might like to write, but don’t copy them, otherwise you end up ambushing the legitimacy of your own work.

There is nothing wrong is emulating other writers, their influences are hugely important to fellow writers, but don’t be a poor imitation. Be your own writer.

Next week in Part 2, we’ll look at positive ways to emulate your favourite others without the need to copy them.

3 comments:

  1. Well said A.J. We must keep our individual style otherwise there would be no point in writing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't have much experience with the technical side of writing. After high school, all the things taught in English left my head. That's why I really appreciate this blog.

    I tend to fall into the habit of emulate when I try writing while I'm in the middle of reading a book. I don't do it intentional, the other author tends to just leak out. Do you have any tips on how to break this bad habit of mine?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks Suzy.

    @ Muckie. We all sometimes fall into this trap. When I first started writing I did copy the styles of my favourite authors but eventually realised I needed to find my own voice, which came after effort and practice.

    If you see that the other author is 'leaking' into what you are writing, then have the courage to step back and assess your work and be objective about it. Also, try to read the book and then leave a gap before writing, so the tendency to become influenced has dissipated somewhat.

    Lastly, be firm with yourself. Remind yourself that it's your voice that counts, your words. Keep repeating it if you have to and eventually you'll train your brain into accepting that YOUR words and YOUR writing voice IS more important.

    Good luck!

    ReplyDelete