Learning From the Masters
When a painter begins to study the art of painting, he often starts by attempting to recreate the work of master painters. To learn impressionist techniques, he recreates Monet’s paintings. To learn how to use color to capture mood and emotion, he will paint like Van Gogh. It is considered important to first mimic the masters to learn techniques as part of creating his own art.
So why does the writing world frown on writers copying another writer’s work to learn techniques? By copying I mean to literally re-type the words from a novel, exactly as they are printed.
Fear of plagiarism is probably the main reason more writers don’t use this method to learn to write. But a painter doesn’t necessarily intend to sell their copy of a Van Gogh painting. They did the exercise to learn the techniques Van Gogh used. It was practice only.
A writer would do the same–copy the words to learn the technique, but not attempt to sell or publish since it is an exact duplicate used for practice only.
So what could you learn from copying a bestselling author’s book? You could learn their particular voice, how they characterize their story people with specific details, even how to pace a story, either fast or slow, depending on your genre.
For example, if you want to learn very fast pacing, copy James Patterson’s books. His short chapters and succinct writing draw the reader through the book very quickly. If you want to learn snappy dialogue, copy Elmore Leonard’s work.
To make the most of the copy technique, follow these steps.
- Select bestselling authors in your genre. In particular, select authors that write stories similar to the ones you would like to write.
- As an advanced technique, try selecting authors outside your genre. This is useful if you’re trying to include non-genre techniques in your story. For example, writing a thriller with rich descriptions.
- Choose short passages to copy for specific techniques, like dialogue, pacing, description or point of view.
- Pay attention as you are typing to the words used, the rhythm, and the phrasing the author used. Think about how you would have written that sentence or paragraph and focus on the differences between your writing style and the author’s.
- After a copy session, write a section of your own novel attempting to use the same style as the other author. Compare the two when done to see how close you came to emulating their technique.
Remember that the goal is to learn a technique, not lift entire sections of another writer’s novel to put in your own. Plagiarism and copyright infringement are not okay. Plagiarism, which is representing another’s work as your own, is unethical. Copyright infringement is using another’s work without their permission (violating their copyright) and it is illegal. They are similar concepts, but they are both wrong, so don’t go there.
Used selectively, the copy technique can teach you specific writing techniques that you can use to enhance your own stories. Just remember to make them solely your own stories and not those of another author.
What authors would you recommend to learn specific techniques?
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