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Inspiration from Other Writers

Who has inspired you as a writer?

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we somehow process the prose of those writers we admire, and finds its way into our own works.

This might be more true in fiction, perhaps, but nonfiction writers can be tremendous stylists (think of Truman Capote in “In Cold Blood” or early Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer at his best or the essays of T.S. Eliot, to name just a few). Business writers are less known for their prose style; the best ones put forth their ideas in a clear and imaginative way. You may not be carried away by their use of language, but you might take to heart some of their precepts, which is probably more to the point in a business book.

But if you’re writing, finding your voice, building a platform for your ideas, you are in the process of developing your own style. And this is important: whether you work with a ghostwriter or not, you will have a voice that says “you” when you write (or when you approve the writing of someone who’s writing with you), so that it reflects your thinking in a way that sounds most natural.

I was led to think about the impact that writers have had on other writers by an article in The New York Times that spoke about how the burgeoning science of Big Data technology is being used in the humanities to gauge a variety of literary trends.

You can do your own research, on a perhaps smaller scale, through Google’s innovative Ngram Viewer, which charts the popularity of writers through the decades.

The literary researcher quoted in the Times article, Matthew L. Jockers, found that the most influential writers on other writers in the 19th century were Jane Austen and Walter Scott, “in terms of writing styles and themes.” My own inspiration, in my novels, comes mainly from Anthony Trollope, Henry James and George Eliot. In nonfiction, it is likely more from my years at The Wall Street Journal, where I learned to write more clearly.

In any event, a good exercise for you would be to see whose writing you find speaks most directly to you, and see if that has had an effect on your style. Then try to see why. Is it the clarity? The humor? The way of using anecdotes? The characterization? The tone the writer uses with the reader? This might say a lot about what you find important in writing

And this is a good thing. Writing is solitary, but we’re never truly alone: we write from inspiration, from guidance, from remembering aspects of what others have written. There’s a tendency to parody, or inadvertently copy a strong style. But if you engage with other writers in a forthright and honest way, you will nevertheless be yourself in your own writing.

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  • Cinde Dobson Johnson

    I agree, Bob, that when you’re writing, you’re finding your own voice, and your own style. I believe that the more you write, the more your true voice will come through, and the more you will further engage your audience in a real and genuine way. :)

  • Anonymous

    I completely agree! Whenever I’m finding myself lacking creativity and drawing a blank when writing, I know it’s time to immerse myself in the authors I admire. I love reading and listening to the artful combinations of words of poets like Robert Frost, clever and witty authors of juvenile fiction (like “Framed” by Frank Cottrell Boyce) or one of my new favorite authors Marcus Zusak who wrote “The Book Thief.” Makes a huge difference. Listening and learning from other artists helps me develop and improve my own skills.