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Giving and Taking: Learning As You Go

Most writers learn by doing. Few learn by copying. Maybe they should emulate singers and songwriters, to figure out what works or what doesn’t.

Many singer-songwriters first learn to sing, to perform, to write by performing and singing the works of other musicians. The Beatles and the rolling Stones discovered American rhythm-and-blues music, learned how those songs were built – and how singers sang them — and incorporated what they learned into their own writing and performing.

Writers mainly read other writers, and hesitate to “copy” what other writers are doing – even long-dead ones – for fear of either inadvertently plagiarizing those earlier works (or being accused of doing so) or of polluting their own style with that of another’s prose or poetic voice.

But you can learn a lot by trying to emulate what makes another writer’s work work. Marcel Proust, the great French novelist, parodied the writings of many of his literary ancestors but remains one of the French language’s most distinctive stylists.

If you break down a book and see how it’s put together, and try – as an exercise – to write your own book, on whatever subject, along the lines of that book, you will learn not only the mechanics of crafting something, but you will slowly discover your own voice.

You won’t necessarily become another writer’s voice by trying to ape what that writer is doing. You’ll soon move beyond it.

Try this as an exercise. Find a work – an article, an essay even a short book – and attempt to recreate it on a subject that interests you. See what the writer does and where, and try to emulate that writer’s style.

You’ll find that you might be able to copy but not to outdo, and you’ll find in the end that you will come away with a greater knowledge of how to put something together, as well as a greater sense of how to develop your own voice.

I’d love to hear how you do on this.

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  • Anonymous

    Love this exercise!