Write Like the Greats
Posted by monicamynk
This is the second of several posts discussing Richard Bausch’s essay “Letter to a Young Writer,” which offers some of the best advice I’ve seen about the craft of writing. In the last post, I discussed his advice that writers must be readers.
Here’s his second point:
Imitate. While you’re doing this reading, you spend time trying to sound like the various authors, just as a painter learning to paint sets up his easel in a museum and copies the work of the masters. You learn by trying the sound and stance of other writers. You develop an ear, through your reading and imitating, for how good writing is supposed to sound.
It’s been said of Hunter S. Thompson that he retyped stories from Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald to mimic their styles. The strategy certainly worked for him, but I can’t imagine where he found the time to do it. Still, I think there’s some merit in studying the way a good writer puts a paragraph together.
That said, I don’t think this advice can necessarily be interpreted as to imitate the best sellers. David Baldacci is by far one of my favorite writers, but I sometimes get frustrated in his books with the pages of dialogue that have no speech tags or action beats. I sometimes have to read those pages six or seven times to figure things out. If I submitted something like that to an agent or editor, they’d send it straightway to the bottom of the slush pile. He can get away with it because he’s sold so many books.
To write like the ‘Greats’, it’s essential to have a clear definition of what being great actually means, within the scope of your goals as a writer. If you want to write thrillers, it’s probably not best to write like a romance novelist. If you want to write young adult fiction, you might not find inspiration from a nonfiction author.
I think Bausch brings up another good point–great writing is something you can “hear” when you read it. In my early days of writing, I was told by several critiquers to consider my voice and try to define it and make it stronger. It’s important to not just take on the voice of someone else. Still, there’s a transition and flow to good writing that’s painfully absent from the work of a newbie.
That’s where critiquing is so important. When you learn how to identify those errors you “hear” in the words of others, it’s easier to stop making them in your own.