Learn From Other Writers by Copying Them
Obviously plagiarism is not cool, nor recommended. But outright copying something you love has its place. Here’s one way to learn from stories you admire.
The sincerest form of Flattery
I first heard about this many moons ago on the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast. It was in relation to screen-writing and the interviewee mentioned they used to copy a show word-for-word in order to learn.
Now, they weren’t copying a script (this was before such things were readily available on the internet), but instead sat in front of the TV and recreated the script, constantly pausing or rewinding their VHS.
This method taught them a lot about dialogue, how a scene was constructed, and indeed how an episode was constructed.
This technique has been doumented on the podcast by a few writers since, but I never joined the dots before because I’m not a script writer.
Recently though it occurred to me that I could do something very similar with short stories.
What I hoped to learn
There are some things I struggle with when writing short stories. Could these be fixed by copying one out as an exercise? Would I learn more than if I simply read it carefully?
One of my main bugbears, and one I don’t really know how to solve, is my tendency to write list-like sentences. I didn’t notice I did this until I read this post by Janice Harding. After that, I couldn’t stop seeing a dirge of lists in my writing.
The problem is basically that I follow a pattern of sentence constructions in my fiction. The same sentence structure, sentence after sentence creates the tone of a list. Dull.
I don’t know why this afflicts my fiction – it doesn’t happen in my blog posts as far as I’m aware. But often when I see this, fiddling with the sentence makes the sound unnatural and rewriting the paragraph produces another list.
So I need a wider sentence-structure- vocabulary. Might copying another story help with this?
The story so far
Okay, so I’m part way through trying this out.
I chose my favourite story from the podcasts I listen to. This is Devour by Ferrett steinmetz and was published on Escape pod. Handily, there is a transcript here.
I liked the story for its emotional intensity; the blend of present day with flashbacks and backstory; the vivid description of the horror that unfolds.
What have I learned so far? Specificity gives this story it’s power: the details of the couples’ interactions in the flashback scenes; the descriptions of the horrific transformation that takes place.
Is this something I couldn’t have got from careful reading? I’m skeptical. I certainly haven’t got any flashes of inspiration concerning sentence structure.
But I will continue the experiment and even give a couple more stories a go. I think it’s worth a try.
Over to you:
What do you think of my experiment? If you’ve tried something similar I’d like to hear how it went for you. What ways have you tried to learn from writers you admire?