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Learn From Other Writers by Copying Them

December 10th, 2013 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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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?

Cat on a laptop

“I am in ur laptop, steeling ur manurscrip.” Image courtesy of Justin Dolske on Flickr

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?

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  • Craig

    Waaaay back when I was in school, I used to while away my maths lessons by writing out scenes from episodes of Red Dwarf. From memory. (Don’t worry, this was in my final year, and I’d already got my maths GCSE a year early, so they were essentially free periods) So I guess that was something similar.

    As I’m sure you know though, I have a massive issue (or should I say anxiety) about copying existing writers. I’m not sure where this came from, because earlier in my life, I used to frequently mimic Robert Rankin, even down to using his same running gags. It never bothered me back then, I think probably because it was lighthearted comedy stuff I was writing (The infamous Atomic Shrimps. What do you mean you’ve never heard of them?) and it was generally only for my friends. Who didn’t know who Robert Rankin was.

    You made a comment a while back about how I could consider my writers voice as a combination of my influences, and I replied that I hoped it was more than just that. However, as you note in this post, it can be very helpful in establishing your own voice.

    I think its fairly well established that I have my own distinct style to my writing, and maybe that came out of my earlier life mimicking so closely what I was into at the time. It can allow you to spin off your voice in new and different ways, to evolve. Much like humans and apes evolving from the same common ancestor (which is how it actually works, Creationists) your own writing can evolve from someone else’s style.

    I’m not sure how useful this kind of exercise might be for a more advanced writer though. For the record, I’ve always found you to have a very distinctive writers voice, and I have never noticed the issues that you mention in this post in any of the stuff you have written.

    But then, I am a bit of a Matt fanboy, aren’t I?

  • aditya

    wow i love this thanx for sharing……..


  • Flannigan

    Yes, I’ve done this before, and it can help. I used to have terrible trouble keeping on plot. And I had no clue what a ‘scene’ was, no matter how many times someone explained. There was no inkling in my mind where to end a chapter, or even how to start one. So all my first drafts went for over 300,000 words, and had zero breaks, and zero story. So what I did was started going in to books I liked and writing a story based on their structure, sometimes copying out whole paragraphs and analyzing why I liked them, and how they flowed from my fingertips. I think this last is perhaps key. Its no use being an unlettered copy scribe. Then you’ll just end up with a second version of a story.