Being a Better Writer: Imitation … or Copying?

This’ll be a short one today, guys. I’m actually still sick, but I really feel bad about missing last week’s post (in truth, my whole week went by in a blur of “ack, bleck, cough cough cough, can’t think, play Sonic Mania/X-Com 2). So you’re getting a post today. Not the one I’d planned (my brain’s not quite functional enough for the more in-depth companion piece to Horizontal and Vertical Storytelling), but a post nonetheless that instead serves as a sort of semi-follow-up piece to this one, instead.

You’ll note the similarity of the titles if you click the link. That’s intentional.

Oh, and really quick: Patreon Supporters, there will still be an August reward. I just … need to stop being sick first.

Okay, so today’s short topic. This was brought on by a post I ran across on a forum the other day that was directed as “advice” for new writers.

It was … poor advice. I’ll give you the quick summary. It postulated that in order to become good, what one should do was find an author whose writing that they wanted to emulate, pick a story or excerpt of theirs that you wanted to emulate, and then just … copy it. Type out the same words, massaged slightly with your characters and the details changed so that it wasn’t outright word-for-word plagiarism. Their reasoning was that this would help you ‘create’ something very much like the author’s you idolized, but still your own.


Let me say that again, with a bit of emphasis.

No. This is not a good idea. Do not do this. It’s not going to help you—in fact, it will cripple you.

Why? Because it is not an act of creation. It is an act of copying. It’s tracing over an original creation and then pretending the work is your own. And you know what? It will not help you. No more than tracing a piece of art will.

In fact, let’s run with that for a moment. Why doesn’t tracing help an artist? Some would argue that it trains one to hold a pen or pencil, and helps one know how to draw. Except …

It doesn’t. Art is a complicated process. Ask an art major. There’s a whole mess of awareness and planning that goes into every single stroke of a pen, from the first initial pencil sketch lines to the final inking of a piece of artwork. And you skip all of that when tracing.

What am I talking about? Let’s take a simple piece of art—say an awesome Webcomic like Schlock Mercenary (linked for your pleasure). Say the artist behind it sits down to sketch a character. Where does he start? The eyes? The chin? The arms? The body? What lines are filled in first? How are the other parts of the picture filled in with respect to where the central image is? What direction do the lines move in? Does the jawline start at the top and then move down and around, or does it start at the bottom and swing upwards?

These are all little bits that go into the creation of something like a comic strip, but if one simply traces over that image? They learn none of it. The lines are just lines to be copied as closely as possible. There’s no sketching of the shape, no thought or consideration of where the creator’s pen began and where it ended. Just … aimless copying.

This lack of thought concerning the why is why I do not advocate copying someone else’s work as a writing exercise. It simply won’t help you because you won’t analyze the reasons behind what made particular passages so great. It’s like tracing over another individual’s picture: Sure the end result might look nice, but the one who did the copying still lacks any understanding of the elements that make either the original or the copy look good. The prose, the form, the words chosen … they’re not something understood, but merely mimicked.

Now, does this mean you can’t learn how to write well by utilizing a favored author’s work? Of course not! It just means you shouldn’t be copying them in blind mimicry, lifting passages wholesale. Instead, you should be following their example.

What do I mean by this? Well, in a way this goes back to the Is it Original or is it Copying post that I linked above. Copying won’t get you anywhere. But following an example and creating your own work, even if it turns out somewhat similar, is fine as long as it is your own work.

So how does this help you? Well, here’s what you can do. Rather than copying something and tweaking words, write your own stuff. Even as an exercise. Let’s say … you want to write good fights. Well, start out by sitting down and forcing yourself to write a fight scene. Let it be rough, but make it yours.

Now? Go back and look at a fight scene from one of your favorite authors, and compare what they wrote with what you wrote. Not to go “Wow, how much better is that?” but to ask yourself “What did they do that makes theirs better than mine?”

It’s a bit like drawing a picture while looking at reference material instead of tracing. You’re forcing yourself to create something while seeing an ideal as a comparison, and along the way you’ll be forced to acknowledge what does and doesn’t work. So you write out something that’s maybe a little poor, then you compare it to something that isn’t, something that you really enjoy, and look to see what’s making the difference. Then you go back to your own work and tweak it, adjusting it, until it’s closer to what you want it to be.

The difference with this approach is that rather than blindly tracing over another author’s words, you’re instead forcing yourself to analyze both your own work and that of the author’s you wish to be as skilled as, before putting that analysis to good use by adjusting your own creations.

And sure, this isn’t going to instantly make your writing blossom. Just as an artist needs lots of time to train their hand and develop their own style, you’ll want to do a lot of writing and a lot of analysis. You’ll want to compare your work to a wide number of authors, again and again, to see what works for you and what doesn’t.

The result, however, sill be that you begin to establish your own style. With each successive run, you’ll find less and less wanting about your work as you start to integrate what you’ve learned into your practice. You’ll go from “nothing is very good in this story” to “well, there’s some stuff that’s good, but these areas still need to work” to “Well, this reads very well! Look at that!”

In other words, don’t copy, but observe and compare. Create your own works, then compare and contrast elements of them against similar elements from authors who are quite good at that particular area. From there, work out how you can improve. Figure out what makes other works work that you’ve not integrated into your own writing, then work out how to add it in.

Is this work? Sure, but that’s writing.

Don’t copy. Create. Then analyze, compare, and improve.

Good luck. Now get writing.


Again, sorry for the short post, and any errors on display here. I’m not my best when I’m ill.


But if you still like what you saw, please consider supporting via Patreon!

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