Developing a skill invariably requires learning from others with more experience. Writing is no exception. Improving as a writer involves reading others’ work and—at least at first—emulating it. Put simply, emulating other authors helps you learn what works and what doesn’t.
“Hey, hang on,” you might say indignantly, “are you asking me to copy other writers?”
I know why you may feel that way. Few things are more upsetting to a writer than to be accused of plagiarism. Judging by discussions I’ve had with fellow authors, it probably hurts less to have your own work plagiarized than to be wrongfully accused of plagiarism yourself. So, why am I suggesting that you become a better writer by emulating others?
And so, here comes a giant flashing red light..
Plagiarism, imitation, and emulation are three entirely different concepts. Their meaning, motivation, and results have nothing to do with one another. Whereas one can lead you into muddy waters, both legally and ethically, another can make the difference between a competent author and a great author.
When it comes to language, most people think they know what a word means. Their assumptions are generally true with tangible objects: a chair, a table, a basketball (though consider a rose is a rose is a rose).
Things become much more complicated with abstract concepts. Good luck trying to define love, integrity, or loyalty and have people agree about them. Plagiarism, imitation, and emulation are abstract concepts, so it’s important to establish some definitions we can agree on for the sake of this article.
The word plagiarism has its roots in a latin word for the crime of kidnapping. That should give you a good hint as to whether plagiarism is acceptable or not.
Broadly, we could say there are two kinds of plagiarism: intentional and unintentional. If a writer commits intentional plagiarism, they deliberately copy another author’s arguments (nonfiction) or plot (fiction), sometimes even the text itself, and presents them as their own.
Unintentional plagiarism is deep down the same thing, only in this case the writer has either honestly forgotten to cite the author or they have not used a proper citation. Still, they are liable for their actions.
Plagiarism is about direct benefit: A writer committing plagiarism uses other authors’ hard work for personal gain, either monetary or academic. Sometimes, the benefit can also be political.
Plagiarism often has dire, catastrophic consequences. At best, a writer caught plagiarizing will be ridiculed and not taken seriously; at worst, they will additionally face legal action. The scant benefit of plagiarism is not worth the irreparable consequences. Just don’t do it!
In the context of writing, to imitate is to copy something alright, but it’s neither text nor arguments—or, for fiction, plot. A writer imitating another copies a concept.
Let’s say I decided to write a book about this special school where there is magic and students learn how to become wizards. Unless I copied specific plot lines or named my protagonist … Larry Otter, it wouldn’t be a case of plagiarism but of imitation. As such, it wouldn’t be illegal and not quite unethical, but it’d still be a rather petty thing to do. It would reveal I had nothing of my own to say, and instead relied on others’ ideas.
Imitation is about indirect benefit: When a writer imitates a fellow author, they like the latter’s idea so much that they want to use it in their own writing. They do say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” after all.
Now we get down to serious business. When you emulate another writer, you don’t copy their text, arguments/plot, or concepts. You copy their style.
To emulate an author means not only that you like their work a lot, but also that you understand why. In a way, emulation is an evolved stage of imitation. As an author, you already have the experience to know why a certain book or writer appeals to you: not as a result of ideas (let alone particular plot lines), but because of a more ghostly, not-easily-defined way of writing and expression.
Emulation is about abstract benefit: As we will see in more detail below, copying someone else’s style teaches you how to implement style in your own writing. The very fact that you copy someone’s style means that, at the very least, you’re aware there’s such a thing—not a given for many writers out there.
To have a writing style is the Holy Grail of writing, as far as I’m concerned. William Shakespeare’s tragedies are considered timeless not because of the originality of their plots or ideas—they were, after all, based on older texts—but because of their author’s unique, then unprecedented style.
Defining “style” is itself thin ice. It can mean different things to different people. Indeed, you will find all kinds of formal (or formal-sounding!) definitions on the internet, but I don’t think we should unnecessarily complicate things.
Style, for most purposes relevant to writing, is the way you express yourself and your identity through your writing—in ways other than content. In a sense, to have your own style means to have discovered a way to tell your readers who you are without needing to explicitly put it in words. As a result of its being predicated on uniqueness, it’s very difficult to teach someone how to find their style.
The first step in discovering your own writing style is to understand someone else’s style.
A long time ago, when I was a young(er) and stupid(er) writer, I was naive too—if you read my post on writing quotas, you’ll discover that I used to think I should write every day, even if I had nothing to say. It was that kind of writing immaturity, when I was still figuring things out, that led me to write short stories following the tracks of Poe or Kafka.
The evolution was fairly typical: First I copied their plots—it would’ve been plagiarism if I had tried to publish them, but those stories I kept for myself. The next stage was to copy the concepts, entering imitation territory. I’d realized I needed to come up with my own ideas, so I tried to be more original, though still following similar plot twists or literary devices.
It was only much later that I realized what made me like those authors. And so, I began to emulate Poe’s morbid empathy and Kafka’s surrendered alienation, but not in terms of the content of their stories.
Rather, it was something more abstract. I realized that what fascinated me in their work were things like the way they put paragraphs together, the way one chunk of text morphed into another, or the way they approached something supernatural as entirely mundane. Ultimately, it was the way they broke the rules.
It wasn’t about what they said, but how they said it; because it made me understand why they said it.
Going through that latter stage, emulating rather than imitating, was what made me realize there is such a thing as “a style.” The next step was to discover my own—that is, to find a way to express myself by breaking the rules creatively. For instance, I started coming up with words that didn’t exist or were atypical.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Writing is an intimately personal process. Although in some contexts it might also be a group task—such as preparing a press release or a brochure—deep down, writing as a form of expression remains a solitary activity. It’s a unique vehicle for expressing one’s inner thoughts, ideas, and ideology; the way we reflect on our surroundings. Ultimately, writing is a journey of self-discovery.
As writers, we begin this journey by liking other authors, eventually wanting to imitate them. At first, this is a bit naive and unsophisticated—we might copy ideas or some general concept—but with experience we begin to realize there’s more to it, the way there’s more to writing than merely putting words together.
We discover we like these authors not (only) because of their arguments, plots, or ideas. We like them in a more profound sense, because there’s “something” about the way they write that resonates with us and goes beyond the words themselves. Soon, we begin to emulate them.
Then, one day, we discover we no longer need to emulate anyone, because we have discovered a little something of our own. Welcome to writing!
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.