Imitate, Then Innovate

To improve your writing, binge-read your favorite writers and shamelessly copy their style.

Whenever I find a writer I admire, I mimic them in my next article. The words change but I follow the rhythm of their sentences and the cadence of their words. In Teaching Like a State, I copied the structure of the park bench scene from Goodwill Hunting, and my description of Peter Thiel as an investor, student, and philosopher borrows from the first page of Shantaram. Even this article is inspired by Seth Godin’s punchy writing style

Other writers copy even more. Hunter S. Thompson once hand-wrote every word of the Great Gatsby so he could feel what it’s like to write a great novel. Robert Louis Stevenson copied paragraphs from memory. He read his favorite ones twice. Then, he threw them to the other side of the room and re-wrote them without looking.

Despite their success, writing is a rare artistic medium where copying isn’t encouraged. Musicians practice their scales because the architecture of sound comes to life not when you listen to great music, but when you actually play it. 

Painters copy too. My favorite part of visiting art museums is watching visitors sketch the paintings in front of them. Sometimes, they’ll spend a week in the same place so they can feel how their hands run over the canvas and watch how watercolor flows over the scribble-scrabble of an earlier sketch. 

I know a painting coach who tells her students to listen for resistance in the copying process. “Do you hear that?” she asks. “It’s the echo of your unique style.” Those moments highlight the second benefit of copying: it reveals your voice. 

Ironically, the more we imitate others, the more we discover how we’re different. There’s a long lineage of comedians who tried to copy each other, failed, and became great themselves: Johnny Carson tried to copy Jack Benny, but failed and won six Emmy awards. Then, David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson, but failed and became one of America’s great television hosts. Reflecting on his own influences, Conan O’Brien said: “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.” All of them learned that imitation reveals our identity, especially when we fall short of those we admire.

Instead of trying to be original, mirror others so intensely that the glitter of their brilliance shines upon your craft. It’s the closest you can get to a conversation with the artist. Aim for perfection but pay attention to your mistakes, for they hold the seeds of your individuality. 

I also explain these ideas in a video on my YouTube channel.

Cover photo: Roman Boed through CC 2.0 License


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