Imitation as Inspiration: An Exercise for Writers

by Guest Contributor

Two halves of one self looking at each other

Today’s post is written by Sarah Baughman, a semi-finalist in the Write It Sideways regular contributor search. Thanks, Sarah!

What is it you love most about your favorite writers?

Lush descriptions, startling metaphors, characters so real you can imagine inviting them over for coffee? I’ve often wished that, just for a day, I could borrow a beloved author’s brain and use it to scrawl a few sentences.

As it turns out, trying someone else’s style on for size is not only an excellent cure for writers’ block, but also a viable way to nurture your own creative voice.

As a high school English teacher, I searched for ways to help students both appreciate the literature we read and develop more confidence and structure for their own creative writing.

When I taught Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, I created an assignment that asked students first to identify the stylistic features that distinguished the author’s writing, and then to write about a topic of their choice using those features.

I wrote along with the students and felt appropriately challenged by the exercise, but even students who were self-professed “non-writers” ended up having a lot to say; using Steinbeck’s style as a springboard, they launched into their own entirely original pieces.

How it works

Here’s a breakdown of how the ‘imitation as inspiration’ exercise works:

  1. Identify a sentence or short paragraph from a favorite work that, for whatever reason, strikes you as particularly powerful.
  2. Read the short excerpt several times, generating a list of stylistic features that characterize the writer’s voice.
  3. Create a blank template of the sentence(s), leaving articles, conjunctions, and prepositions intact (the template functions much like a well-informed ad-lib).
  4. Put the writer’s work away—don’t look at it again, or else it might interfere with your own original creative process.
  5. Select a topic that fits well with the stylistic features you pinpointed in Step 2. Freewrite or brainstorm about the topic, generating as many specific details as you can.
  6. Use the blank template from Step 3 to launch your own ultimately unique, piece of writing. If the template feels too restrictive, consider the stylistic features from Step 2 and write freely, incorporating as many as you can.

Worried about plagiarism?

Obviously, literary integrity is of utmost importance. However, as long as you stick to the above steps—choosing just a small excerpt, working from a blank template, and selecting your own topic—you’ll be left with a valuable exercise that stretches your writing brain and inspires a work-in-progress or future piece.

A Sample Exercise

Want to test the process for yourself? Here’s an exercise based on one excerpt from Cannery Row.

Excerpt (John Steinbeck, Cannery Row)

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses…

Stylistic Devices to Note

  • A syntax that rambles, lists, and “piles” word upon word using commas and “ands,” giving a sense of how much is contained in a place
  • Diction that juxtaposes shorter words with longer words to adjust the pace of the sentence, (“a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light”); that gives an exceptionally specific sense of detail (“sardine canneries of corrugated iron”), that show the complexity and contradictory nature of places and people  (“gathered and scattered”)
  • Alliteration (“canneries of corrugated iron”)

Getting Started

Think of a place you know very well.

Ideally, it is a place you have visited recently enough to recall plenty of concrete details.

Brainstorm about the place: how it looks at different times of day, how it smells, what objects can be found in it. Think about why the place is meaningful to you and what memories you have associated with it: especially, how your five senses are awakened when you are there.

Alternatively, you may work with a setting for a short story or novel-in-progress; this is a great way to make sure you know your setting well!

Blank Template

(Place) in (City) in (State/Country) is a (noun), a (noun), a (adjective + noun), a (2-word noun),  a (noun), a (noun),  a (noun), a (noun). (Place) is the (past tense verb) and (past tense verb), (noun) and (noun) and (noun) and (2-word noun), (adjective + noun) and (adjective + noun)  and (2-word noun), (noun) of (noun expressing materials the previous noun is made of), (noun), (noun) and (noun), and (2 adjectives + noun), and (noun) and (noun)…

Once you’ve written from the template, you’ll be surprised at how quickly words continue to flow.

Happy writing!

Sarah Baughman is a writer and trained teacher who has published articles in print and online publications. Her collection of creative non-fiction essays won the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press 2010 Chapbook Contest. You can follow her on Twitter and check out her blog, A Line At A Time.

  • Kathi

    Excellent idea! I was just thinking this morning how I should start up morning pages again (a la Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way) because I seem to have no imagination or creativity AT ALL of late. I also recently read a Dean Koontz book (he has, with some reluctance, become my very favorite author. I mean, his books aren’t exactly classics, right? Shouldn’t someone like Austen or Steinbeck or Dickens be a favorite?) and was again gaga over his word choices and descriptions and ability to create a scene and weave a story. I’ve asked myself a dozen times or more how he does it, and why other books, that seem on the surface to do what he does, just don’t cut the mustard. I’m pulling that Koontz book out and trying this exercise TODAY. Here’s hopin’…

    • Sarah Baughman

      Absolutely nothing wrong with Dean Koontz! This exercise works for any writer you admire. What matters is, like you said, being able to identify the style you want to emulate. Filling in the blanks is the fun part. Let me know how it goes; I’d love to see what you come up with!

  • Sue Mitchell

    I love this! So often, borrowing structures from a mentor text can help get us started, and usually getting started is the hardest part. Thanks for the fantastic example. Off to write…

    • Sarah Baughman

      Very true, Sue…mentor texts are so valuable. I find that when words won’t come, this helps me get started. I hope the exercise works well for you– would love to see the results!

  • Sarah Callender

    Love this idea, Sarah! I often feel as if I have three forms of syntax in my writing . . . three boring ways to write a sentence. Zzzzzzz. This is a great exercise to make us squirm a bit. In a good way, of course! Great post.

    • Sarah Baughman

      Sarah, I too feel like I tend to fall into syntax ruts. It seems contradictory, but there’s something about forcing yourself to copy someone else’s sentence structure that actually opens up a lot of room for innovation later. And yes– squirming can be a very good thing!

  • Ashley Prince

    This is absolutely brilliant! I seriously am just amazed by this post. How did I not think of this? I am having some serious writer’s block and I may do just this. ‘

    Thank you so much for a great post, Sarah.

    • Sarah Baughman

      Thanks, Ashley! I really hope the exercise works for you– let me know, if you decide to use it, how it goes.

  • florence fois

    Sarah, that was a fascinating writing lesson. Just for the fun of it, I sent you something via email. Didn’t think you’d want it posted here. You hit on one of my all time fav 20th century classics in Steinbeck and I think I’ve read that one at least six or seven times. Great idea to get someone’s juices flowing :)

    • Sarah Baughman

      Thanks, Florence! I just responded to your e-mail– love the sample and I’m so glad you sent it. Cannery Row is definitely unique– I could have probably used that book to write a whole new post on the value of unconventional plot structure.

  • Chris Nielsen

    I just signed up for your newsletter a few days ago and when the first one arrived I was expecting the normal teasers to go to your site and affiliate links to click on. I was very pleased to find this post in it’s entirety, and with what seems to be very valuable content and ideas. Thank you for not making me go to your site, since now I am happy to have returned again. And thanks for such encouraging and useful information.

    As a computer geek who thinks he wants to write, I was afraid your post was going to throw out the idea and then leave me to figure out how to put it together. But then I was so happy to see actual examples that drove home the understanding.

    By the way, plagiarism is not really an issue in this situation is it? I would think it could be considered “fair use”, since the original work is so heavily modified.

    • Sarah Baughman

      Chris, I’m glad this post seemed helpful and accessible. Whether you’re just starting out with writing or whether you’ve been doing it for years, learning from model texts is always valuable. I agree that plagiarism is not really a concern for such a small exercise but I tend to try and err on the safe side and wanted to reassure people who might have been concerned. I hope the exercise is useful for you and would certainly enjoy seeing the results if you choose to pass them along.

  • Rose Byrd

    Excellent exercise to get us out of those syntax ruts. This will be a good exercise for me this evening while I plan my own post for tomorrow! I have a feeling I shall be returning to this exercise more than once!

    • Sarah Baughman

      I hope you enjoy the exercise, Rose! It’s definitely one that can be repeated, as long as we have writers we admire (which of course we always will).

  • Cindy Huff

    I appreciated the example. I am very visual. Looks like a great exercise. Shared it on my Facebook for any writer friends to check out.

    • Sarah Baughman

      I’m glad the example worked for you, Cindy– hope it can be useful for others as well!

  • Ann Evans

    Great exercise, both for me and for my students. They are college freshmen, and have obviously not had high school teachers like you. We are often starting at Square One when it comes to writing, especially the ability to handle (noun+adj.) They are so little aware of how language is constructed. But that’s fine with me — I feel greatly needed!

    My own blog, concentrates on how language is constructed, how meaning is made, and what the role is of language in our lives. I will share it on my blog, with your permission.

    • Sarah Baughman

      Ann, I’m very glad this will be useful for another teacher! Please feel free to share it on your own blog (which, by the way, looks like a terrific resource). I’ve always heard that good writers are also good readers, which is one reason why mentor texts can be so helpful. I don’t want to make a sweeping generalization, but I think in some cases students are reading less outside of school which might be partly why they struggle so much with language. Especially in these cases, the “fill in the blank” exercise can really open up some creativity. Good luck with it!

  • Christi Craig

    I love this idea. Lately, I’ve been listening to fiction podcasts for The New Yorker, marveling at the stories, the prose. I imagine an exercise like this one would also help me pinpoint what techniques make some of those stories so successful or powerful, for me as a reader — insights that I would learn from and hopefully be able to translate into my own writing.

    • Sarah Baughman

      Christi, the fiction podcasts sound great– I always love the short stories in The New Yorker. Thanks for that tip! And I agree, identifying what authors do best is one of the most important steps– once we name them, they’re easier to integrate into our own writing.

  • Deimar

    I will definitely give this method a try and let you know about the outcomes. I was using it on my mind , and it kind of works. thanks.

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