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Creative Writing Exercises for Imitation

  • Creative Writing Exercises for Imitation

    There are countless college courses on writing. There are writing groups and online universities that say they'll show you how to write. Any or all of these may be fine places to learn the practice of creative writing, but a far more vast, accessible, and affordable college full of highly qualified writing teachers waits patiently for you at your bookstore, the stacks of your local library, and even your own bookshelves at home. Try the following techniques and watch your own abilities grow.

    Choose Your Mentors
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    Who are your favorite authors? Whose work do you head for first when you visit the library or bookstore? Choose a few favorites and make them your mentors. They can all work within the same genre, or several different ones. Perhaps you'll have a favorite novelist, a favorite poet, and a favorite playwright. This is fine. All forms of creative writing can inform one another. Perhaps you are certain you will write within a particular genre, and you want to study writers in that genre. That is fine too. Purchase copies of one or more books by each of your mentors, so that you have examples of their work at your fingertips.

    Run it through Your Fingers

    In the days of Bach and Mozart, composers learned their trades by literally copying the works of their teachers. As no photocopiers existed, composers who wished to provide music for an entire orchestra had to employ copyists who wrote out parts for every instrument to play. These copyists were composition students who did this work in exchange for their tutelage. Their hands-on work with their instructors' musical creations was one of the key elements in their own artistic growth.

    Many well-known writers have described starting out by literally copying pages written by writers they admired. Since copying requires more action than reading, your mind and body will be more actively engaged with the work you are studying than if you simply read it. Your muscles will feel the sensation of good writing. Your mind will notice how effective sentences and paragraphs go together. You will get a sense of the specific things your admired author is doing that make you admire him so much. Both your mind and body will learn to write by osmosis.

    Exercise: Pick a page or two of writing by one of your mentors. This can be any form, from novel to stage play, to poem -- whatever you like. If you are working with short poems, you might choose several. Copy this author's work by hand, or by typing it onto a computer, (this is a good time to practice your typing). Observe the words and sentences forming under your fingers. Don't feel pressured to analyze how this writer achieves the effects she does. Simply remain aware of the words you are writing, reading them as you go. Make this your main writing activity for a week or two. Mix it up with the work of different authors, or just work with one, as you wish.


    Though it should go without saying, copying the work of others, and distributing it while trying to pass it off as your own, is illegal. This exercise is purely for your own learning and is not intended to be shared with anyone else for any reason. You might even consider entitling and attributing your copied work by listing the author's name at the top. That way, if someone should happen to read your work and realize it is copied, they will know that you know that it is someone else's writing.


    After you have spent some of your writing time on copying, the next step is to try your hand at emulating your chosen author's work. You emulate by writing a piece in your own words, but at the same time making a conscious effort to write in the style of the author you have been studying. Doing this will take your comprehension of your chosen author's technique to a new level, by forcing you to determine what she is doing with her words, and how she is doing it. At the same time, you will be creating your own words as well, so your own style will begin to be born even as you emulate someone else's.

    Exercise: Pick a paragraph from a mentor's work, and copy it. When you have finished, immediately write another paragraph in your own words, but try to imitate the author's style as closely as you can. Choose a similar situation. Use similar techniques of description. Make every effort to craft your paragraph so it is "the same, but different," from the one you have chosen as your model. Make this your primary writing practice for a week or two, and try different authors, or stick with one, as you see fit.


    Creative writers work with so many elements at one time, that learning the craft can be overwhelming and intimidating. Fiction writers juggle character, plot, scene, description. Poets wrestle with imagery, metaphor, structure, and sometimes rhyme and meter. One way to simplify the learning process is to let a mentor do part of the work for you. Borrowing certain elements of an author's work, and then supplying your own variations is an effective way to learn. It gives you a chance to focus on certain elements of the creative process by leaving the other elements to someone else.

    Exercise: Choose a short story or scene from a longer work that you admire. Sketch out the basic storyline. What happens, and to whom? How does it come out? Now, sketch out a similar storyline, changing the details, but keeping the story's backbone intact. If your chosen scene involves a married couple arguing about money, create a scene in which an unmarried couple argues about something else, such as whether or not to commit, or even where to go out for dinner. Resolve your scene in a similar way to the scene you are emulating. If the original scene ends with a satisfying resolution, have yours do the same. If the characters end the scene in trouble, have yours do the same. Change the characters, the subject, the situation, yet write essentially the same scene. This will give you a chance to write creatively without coming up with every element from scratch. You can vary this exercise by keeping a different aspect of the original story and creating the rest yourself. Try keeping the two original characters, but have them argue on a different subject in a different place. Or try a scene in which the conflict comes from some other source, and they don't argue with each other at all.


    The technique described in the example above is often called "riffing." In music, a riff is a short musical phrase that is characteristic of a certain musician's style. Riffs are also referred to as licks. In improvised music, like Jazz, Blues, and Rock and Roll, it is common for musicians to borrow riffs from one another, changing them to suit their own sounds. Like old time composers copying the works of the masters, contemporary musicians copy riffs from musicians they admire, and incorporate them into their own sounds. An interview with any well-known musician will include a list of who his "influences" are, meaning the other musicians he has emulated while developing his own style.

    Writers can borrow riffs from other writers as well. In creative writing, a riff can be any element of style that is signature to a given author. Ernest Hemingway was famous for his terse, efficient writing style, and for speaking volumes with few words. Robert B. Parker's "Spenser" novels share a penchant for understated dialogue and description. While I have no idea whether Parker consciously emulated Hemingway, it seems entirely possible.

    Other examples of written riffs can include chapter length, sentence length, language use, types of characters often drawn, common images, and many other elements. If you can look at an author's work and say to yourself, "This is vintage so and so," then you are noticing this author's characteristic riffs. Isolate them, and try them out in our own writing.

    Exercise: Riff on a favorite character in one of your mentor's works. Give your own character a different name, a different career, even a whole different walk of life, but make her the spiritual sister of your mentor's character. Have her believe the same things, only in the context of the many different elements of her life. Write a short monologue from her perspective, or write a scene that mirrors one containing the original character, only changing all the details.

  • To repeat the warning above, imitation and emulation are essential tools for the developing writer, but they must never be used as shortcuts to fame and fortune. If your writing is a direct imitation of an existing work, keep it to yourself. Share it with the world, and someone is bound to see the similarity. Emulating the work of others is a path to developing your own unique style. Don't be in a rush to show your writing to the world until it is really your own.
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