When to Copy, When to Imitate
Karen Krumpak makes a distinction between copying and imitating in her article appearing in Dec 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. She strongly recommends imitating and gives examples. Copying doesn’t get as strong a push, but has validity.
“[D]irectly copying someone else’s writing doesn’t produce anything new. [B]ut it can help you get the ball rolling.”
Here is her example of copying: “Try pulling out the work of an author that you want to emulate in some way and type out the exact text, word for word. To derive the greatest benefit from this practice, shift after about five minutes from copying them to writing something of your own.” (In the author’s style.)
Clearly, copying means typing. Not writing by hand, which is the way I have copied sales letters to understand and emulate sales copy. And I have used these sales letters as a template for my own copy. I don’t reject what she writes. I’m thinking of typing out some copy from a writer whose humor I especially like, then making my imitation happen.
She lists Jack London, Benjamin Franklin, and Hunter S. Thompson as writers who used this practice. We can follow in their footsteps. (And Ben Franklin did not use a typewriter, did he?) It just takes time and effort.
Most of her article is about imitating, not copying. She urges her reader to do this: “Once you’ve finished a book, a story, a poem or any other written work, try writing just a few paragraphs or pages in the same style.”
Her emphasis is on fiction. She goes on to give three points about why this is a good discipline. 1 It’s low stakes. You really cannot fail. Nothing is at risk except the period of time it takes. “Consider it wind sprints leading up to the marathon of your own novel.”
2 You’ll start reading like a writer. You have to begin reading like a writer when you do these imitations. “[P]reparing to impersonate another writer will force you to go back and think: What makes the voice in this story unique? How does this writer use punctuation? How do they establish mood and tone? [W]hat are the effects of the writer’s choices.” All these questions, even the first can be applied to non-fiction.
3 You’ll stretch your skills and improve your technique. “[T]he more skills in your wheelhouse, the stronger, more well-rounded of a writer you’ll become–and those abilities will be available whenever you do end up needing them.”
Here are the elements of the fiction writer’s craft she focused on for her emulations:
Character: She wrote a scene based on My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. The scene was not in the book, but was based on characters in the story. It could have been in the novel.
Setting: She takes a lead from Susana Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The setting is an early 19th century England that has magic as an every day fact.
Point of View: In Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses a blog within the narrative to express a different point of view. The fictional character is a blogger. The blog post shows something more than you get from the narrative.
That last example piques my curiosity big time. I like the idea. I may look for the novel on Amazon. It reminds me of Nabakov’s Pale Fire, where he features a poem written by the main character as an additional insight into the character of the writer and to create mystery.
Ms. Krumpak reassures the reader: “Don’t worry too much about losing your own writing voice while taking on this type of training. Paradoxically, adopting the styles of other writers can help you define yours. While focusing on the words of others, you’ll become more aware of what feels natural–what you like and dislike–and more prepared to make active choices in your own work.”
The article had a short piece of imitation from Krumpak and a link (in print) to more. But the link did not yield any more material by her. Unless I missed it. But I don’t think I did.
She is an assistant editor for Writer’s Digest. The article referred to here, The Imitation Game is not yet on the Writer’s Digest web site. But there is an older article on the same theme: