Reading While Writing: How Imitation Can Lead to Innovation and Improvement

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

A Balancing Act

Reading while writing can be like dancing on a tightrope above a pool of sharks for some writers. They love to read, but are overly concerned with falling into the ravenous word soup below them and being devoured by another writer’s stories and syntax. They worry about polluting their own compositions with a turn-of-phrase, words or ideas from other writers. They desperately want to write something original, to create their own particular voice and style, and be heard. So when it comes time to put words on paper, they’re not sure how to juggle their reading and writing. They’re sorely tempted to become purists, abandoning the books and authors that so inspire them to make sure they don’t (inspire them).

Far from the heights of the tightrope, floating with the flesh-eating fishes are another set of writers who are far more lackadaisical about their influences and “purity” of voice. They ruminate that since nothing is ever completely new, not even a freshly printed novel, why worry, let your story happen, unfold as it may, and if it manages to sprout new growth in the shadow of great books and so much literary noise, all the better.  After all, who are you, humble writer, to eschew the greats to search out something different?

For the majority of writers, these all or nothing approaches are useless. People who don’t read are rarely inspired wordsmiths.  People who do nothing but read, don’t have time to write (and I can sympathize, it’s tempting to skip final revisions of a draft to lose myself in someone else’s already finished story).  So where’s the balance?

It can vary, but most writers will find that getting their feet wet with reading, and even copying as part of the writing process leads them toward a better and more innovative final product.

Let Reading Be a Positive Influence On Your Writing

There’s no way to avoid it. Reading inevitably leaves its marks on your writing. But who says those marks have to be sloppy, unappealing hickeys that you can’t cover-up with concealer to save your life, or Grandma’s dignity at Sunday church?

Subject matter, genre, syntax, and dialogue, all of these elements are influenced by what you read. The simple spare prose of Hemingway may inspire you pare down descriptive elements in your novel, but that doesn’t mean you have to write about war, hunting or manly men. The dry wit of Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde may have your characters making snide remarks more often, but as long as they aren’t strolling about in period costume or spouting out Oscar’s famous quips, you’re probably fine. The epic saga of the Lord of the Rings may have you ramping up dramatic elements in your book series about an aristocratic family from the American South—so what, no one will guess your inspiration unless Magnolia’s younger brother is suddenly charged with guarding her precious engagement ring and skips the upcoming nuptials to lead a group of friends on a cross-country quest to drop and destroy it in the fiery depths of Mount St. Helens.

The point is good writing by successful authors will influence your writing in some way. But there is no reason this has to be a bad thing when in fact it can be a necessary stop on the path to finding your writer voice, and preferred subject matter. Most writers enjoy writing what they enjoy reading and are inspired to write by their favorite books. So swearing off Nora Roberts while you’re working up your romance novel is both painful and unnecessary.

Imitate to Innovate

Copying gets a bad rap as immoral and bad for creativity. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but  some writers regard it as a cop-out, way to escape developing an “original” voice. But the fact is that all great writing builds on the back of existing writing.  It’s your life experience plus the endless tweaking, modification, and personalizing of words and ideas that make them unique and your own. Reading great authors, and mimicking, a.k.a. “copying” their voices is part of that process.

Because in the end, we are a patchwork of the influences we’ve been exposed to up to now. The more we read, the more our writing will reflect. Don’t try to be a John Grisham clone just because he’s been wildly successful, but if there’s an element of his style you absolutely adore, why not incorporate it into your that story you’ve been working on? Don’t sweat the similarities, just remember that revisions can and should cure many evils and help prevent plagiarism.

Copycatting a writer or author you admire can also help you learn to write in a variety of styles and subject matters, a necessary lesson for commercial and copywriters.  To break into magazines and newspapers there’s nothing better. Reading other writers featured in a publication, and adopting elements of their style as your own is a great way to show that you’re flexible, familiar with the publication and know how to adapt your writing to fit the public.

In today’s world, what’s original, and what’s a copy becomes difficult to define.  Many writers have spun novels out of traditional folktales, fairytales and legends or even first-hand accounts of historic events. Are they guilty of copying? Perhaps to some degree, but from the old idea, they make something new. For a long time I was obsessed with fairy tales and Greek and Nordic Myths. So it’s not surprising I’ve read lots of fiction constructed upon these old stories. If I too decide to write a book that hinges on these traditional stories, am I a fraud or less-than-original? I hope not. Because if we as writers are limited to subjects and styles that have never been done before, we’re already out of subject matter….or at least subject matter that I’m interested in writing about.

What about you? Do you read while you write? Do see evidence of other writers’ influences in your words?

Do you think that imitation is immoral? Can it lead to innovation?

========

Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by antony_mayfield.

9 Replies to “Reading While Writing: How Imitation Can Lead to Innovation and Improvement”

  1. I always have no less than half a dozen books I’m reading while I’m in the midst of deadlines for my own projects. They’re an ongoing reminder that someone else faced the very same pressures and yet persevered to deliver an outstanding product. This blog was a fun read, my favorite line being “all great writing builds on the back of existing writing.” Whether the material is good, bad, or somewhere in-between, all writing has something we can learn from and subsequently apply to our own formulas for creativity.

    1. Thanks for reading! I’m always reading multiple books myself. I never thought about them as an ongoing reminder that someone else was able to get it done, but that’s a great way to think about it, I really appreciate that insight.

  2. “Because if we as writers are limited to subjects and styles that have never been done before, we’re already out of subject matter..” Never have truer words been spoken.

    Somehow in today’s world we are so caught up with the “plagiarism monster” that we are afraid even to reuse our own words. Hopefully matters will right themselves and we will see writing for what it is: an attempt to convey our thoughts and experiences as we see them.

    1. Thanks for reading Anjali. We are caught up in the plagiarism monster, indeed and it’s too ridiculous. After all, Nora Roberts is allowed to reuse her own words regularly (as most writers do). For example, in most of her novels with magical characters at some point she talks about women being “slender like a wand”.

  3. I cannot imagine writing without reading. In an MFA program, students are not only encouraged to read in their genre, but required to. It is true, sometimes another writer’s “voice” rubs off on us a bit. But it is entirely possible to “read like a writer,” that is, to analyze another writer’s style and literary tactics in order to learn from them.

    That lesson can teach good and bad. I’ve learned skills I’ve wanted to use in my own work, but also discovered when devices don’t work at all.

    Writing is an art. If we are injecting enough of ourselves into our work, then plagiarism should never become a worry. No one can see – or interpret – the world, the story, the subject matter exactly the way we do.

    1. What a well-thought out response. Thanks for reading. I would agree that fiction-writing, and creative writing is an art, but would be inclined to define technical writing as more of a science with less room for personalization or the writer in the piece. What do you think?

      1. I agree completely. But in the interest of the original post’s subject matter, I thought we were referring to creative works, not technical writing.

        I work in the scientific research field and was once convinced to enroll in the Master’s degree for technical writing. I didn’t last a semester. The specialty is way too rigid and structured for my taste, but I certainly envy those who thrive on that kind of writing.

  4. A great post, Chris! Fitting balance to mine in this site of August 20, 2012. We all do build on the gifts of others before us, and yet, as Frances Brown says above, by injecting enough of ourselves, we cannot help but produce a unique work. As we allow our truest feelings, observations, honesty, craft to come out, we will write to our best.

    1. Thanks for reading, Noelle. I really enjoyed your post, because while I didn’t agree, the writing was punchy and fun to read, and it made me think about my own writing methods.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *