Why you’ll never write like the greats… and why you shouldn’t want to

by Anne Wayman

individual freelance writerby Shane Arthur

You’ve read all the greats. You’ve studied their styles. You may even have attached these styles to your own writing like fake tattoos on a biker.

Sure, reading the greats helps you write better. Sure, everyone borrows snippits of style and technique from other writers on occasion. I don’t have a problem with that.

But, to borrow another analogy, I sadden when I see writers like you wishing to learn styles so you can wear them like suits. I sadden when I suspect you believe people will judge your literary talent by how closely you resemble the original owner of these suits. (Victoria’s Secret anyone?)  I sadden because you fail to realize you have a style genetically unique and just as worthy of copy.

Think about it. Eight billion humans roam the Earth, yet nobody has your fingerprints, never have and never will either. Nobody will ever be you.

I’d say by default you have your own style; you just have to know it. You have to know it and you have to own it proudly…and transfer it to paper.


As for practical advice on doing so, the best advice I’ve learned was READ, READ, READ! Plain and simple, and the library is free. At home, don’t watch television. Read. At bedtime, don’t watch DVDs. Read. (And when you drive to and from work, read with your ears as you listen to audio books and visualize cadance, word repetition, alliteration, and varying sentence lengths.)

And don’t just read for the sake of reading either. Keep an ear open for those words that jump off the page as if dancing to a symphony, words that make your jaw drop in awe, words that confirm how beautiful language truly is. Finding these examples of literary beauty will motivate you to find your own literary beauty.

And if you feel you’re not even sure what to look for, I’ll leave you with one parapraph of text that represents literary beauty better than anything else I’ve ever seen. I won’t list the author’s name. That’s not important. The effect of the text is. I’ll list it, then list it again with words bolded to drive home the point.

I played on and as I played I forgot the people around me. I forgot the hour, the place, the breathless listeners. The little world I lived in seemed to fade — seemed to grow dim — unreal. Only the music was real. Only the music and visions it brought me. Visions as beautiful and as changing as the wind blown clouds and drifting moonlight that long ago inspired the master composer. It seemed as if the master musician himself were speaking to me — speaking through the medium of music — not in words but in chords. Not in sentences but in exquisite melodies!
I played on and as I played I forgot the people around me. I forgot the hour, the place, the breathless listeners. The little world I lived in seemed to fade — seemed to grow dim — unreal. Only the music was real. Only the music and visions it brought me. Visions as beautiful and as changing as the wind blown clouds and drifting moonlight that long ago inspired the master composer. It seemed as if the master musician himself were speaking to me — speaking through the medium of musicnot in words but in chords. Not in sentences but in exquisite melodies!

Read, discover the beauty of language, and mix your own beauty into the equation. That’s a style worth copying.

What are your thoughts regarding style? Let us know in the comments.

Shane Arthur is part of the creative genius at the CreativeCopyChallenge – if you haven’t tried it do so – I’ll bet you love it. Shane is also a super-duper proofreader (see his credentials) and if that isn’t enough, also creates teaching videos .

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

jorgekafkazar March 16, 2013 at 1:52 pm

The snippet of “literary beauty” is entirely too precious for me. Eye of the beholder and so on. Stylistically, my favorite author is Keith Roberts. His use of active verbs to give the setting and move the story is stellar. See “The Signaller” for one example. Not everyone agrees, of course. “The Signaller” was read in a creative writing course I attended. About half the class didn’t like it–they simply didn’t have the necessary vocabulary!

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annew March 19, 2013 at 9:14 am

“Literary beauty” is a concept I can’t even get my head around, not really.

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jorgekafkazar April 14, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Hmm. I’d define literary beauty as how close to poetry the piece comes (w/o rhyme). But I refuse to smoke whatever the writer was smoking in order to see the “literary beauty” in the example above.

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annew April 16, 2013 at 9:01 am

Arguing taste just never works, does it Jorge.

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jorgekafkazar April 16, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Noop, ‘fraid not. They say 90% of the personality lies in the unconscious. Each reader’s unconscious has different contents, so we all read something different into the same piece of prose or poetry.

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annew April 17, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Jorge I know we read prose differently too!

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Susan Talbot March 3, 2013 at 5:29 pm

I can’t speak for other authors when it comes to “writing like the greats”, but as for the Hunter Thompson issue, I believe that his collected, magnificent works speak for themselves! Something about typing Gatsby paid off for him, just as did drinking gallons of whiskey and gorging himself on drugs and taking suicidal motorcycle runs at night, to name a few odd things that contributed to his writing. Not all of it was great, and as he said about the drugs and booze, “I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but it worked for me”. It’d be interesting to hear what he would say about Gatsby.

One reason I can think to copy or at least try to write like a well-known author is to figure out rhythms, points of view, phraseology, character development and so forth, but also to see what one should AVOID doing! I have actually studied a certain, famous author of sci-fi/romance, whose terrible books (in my opinion) have been wildly successful, if nothing else than to see why people keep reading them!

It is also worth copying (for one’s own use) the works of beloved authors, to see where they messed up. my favorite author is Nabokov, yet even he had stumbling blocks and flaws, which one doesn’t see, necessarily, without actually writing them down. To me, it’s worth the time. And surprise: by my rewriting a good portion of [i]Lolita[/i], I discovered that he did a much better job of it than I did. I can love that novel and not copy it.

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annew March 5, 2013 at 7:23 am

There are all sorts of ways to learn to write and to improve one’s writing – and letting your own voice shine through is a worthy goal.

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Mitch January 16, 2011 at 10:47 am

I like the main thrust of this post, which I believe is to just be yourself and write. I’ve seen people try to write like someone else and most of the time it just doesn’t “fit” them so well. No true voice. Yet, at the same time there are people who do write like someone else, especially in music, and that’s okay also, as long as the person writing it trying to be true to themselves.
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annew January 17, 2011 at 5:38 pm

I agree Mitch – I’ve taken someone’s writing apart to figure it out, but never just blindly copied… not my style.

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Shane Arthur January 14, 2011 at 2:45 pm

@jorgekafkazar: Wow. I have not seen your name since last January. Fantastic comment. I believe you should submit a guest post to Anne on the writing process, too.
Regards,
Shane

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jorgekafkazar January 14, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Thanks, Shane. I’ve been busy with writing plays, not very active in day-to-day pick & shovel writing. One of my one-act plays is opening today; my middle-grades novel is scheduled for publication next month. I’d be happy to do a post for Anne sometime. Not sure what I’d say, though…
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annew January 17, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Jorge, I’d love to have a guest post from you… maybe about getting published?

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jorgekafkazar January 20, 2011 at 2:16 am

Not sure my getting-published experience (so far) would be generally helpful, Anne, but let me think about it. I’ll send you something when things settle down a little.

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annew January 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Jorge, considering what I’m paying 😉 the topic and the timing – in fact the willingness – is totally up to you.

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Shane Arthur January 10, 2011 at 10:55 am

@Dan: When people mention the greats, do they mention Shane Arthur? Answer: no, so you’ll have to trust me when I say there’s no self righteousness here. I used to be a computer instructor. I’d have students say, “I wish I could learn this,” or, “I hope I can be as good as you.” It saddened me to see such lack of confidence. They were comparing their worth to how much I knew. So, when I saw one of our creative writing community express similar viewpoints about assuming styles, I had to write this.

This is a positive message for people’s benefit. I don’t believe your comment was at all. If you become one of the greats one day, what do you believe I’ll think of this comment and the person behind it?

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annew January 10, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Well said, Shane… I too am surprised and saddened when I run into lack of confidence. I didn’t know how to get published when I started… it’s not a skill we’re born with. Wish I knew how to gift everyone with real self-confidence. It would be an interesting society.

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Shane Arthur January 10, 2011 at 2:12 pm

@Anne: It took a few months when I started teaching to realize what people taking my classes truly needed was self confidence. It was so bad, I had to create a little skit I’d do before each class where I’d tell them the phrases they were no longer able to say (can’t, hope, wish) and told them to repeat after me, “I WILL learn this stuff.” I’d tell them to visualize the person they hated the most, perhaps a coworker, telling them they would never learn this stuff. This usually gave them the kick they needed. Long story short, I don’t want people looking to the greats for their inner greatness (like people wearing football jerseys with other people’s names on them). For inspiration sure, but nothing more.

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annew January 10, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Where was this Shane? How did your chants work?

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Shane Arthur January 10, 2011 at 2:34 pm

@Anne: I worked for a small computer training company that taught classes to corporations and WIC (Woman, Infants, Children) recipients. I taught basic computers, html, MS Office products, and Photoshop to name a few.
Basically, I wanted them to envision their fears and personify them onto someone that they were not fond of.

“Welcome to class. I’m Shane. I’ll be your instructor for today. If you have any questions, please feel free to use the email on the board and fire away. I’d like everyone to introduct themselves and tell me what you know about the program.”
After intros, Id say, “Okay, now lets learn this program, but first I’m going to teach you the most important skill necessary to master this program, and any others for that matter. (insert positive message here.) Now that you understand how I feel, let’s get to it.”
🙂

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annew January 10, 2011 at 3:16 pm

I like your approach… you can write for me anytime 😉 And if you want a list of words I have a cool way to generate them… hangman on my ipad 😉

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Shane Arthur January 10, 2011 at 10:45 am

@Cathy: Thank you kindly. I sure hope this article helps someone find the confidence and the warrior within so they can become our next great.

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Cathy Miller January 10, 2011 at 8:03 am

Shane-beautiful post-as I have said before, if you write from the heart, how can it be wrong? Isn’t it amazing how we struggle to find our own voice?

I couldn’t agree more about reading. Words inspire. How we use them is what makes us unique.

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annew January 10, 2011 at 1:49 pm

I agree Cathy, our own voice is what comes most naturally.

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Dan Brian January 9, 2011 at 7:33 pm

I am saddened by your self righteousness.

All the greats have tried to write like other great writers that they enjoy, and most admit it. There is nothing wrong with this. Understanding the mechanics of another writer will gain you insight into your writing. Hunter Thompson typed out the entire Gatsby novel just to understand its flows and rhythms.

Knock it off, Shane.

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annew January 10, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Dan! I’m blown away you find Shane self-righteous! I also doubt that ‘all’ the great writers have tried to write like others… many, maybe. As I understand Shane’s post, if Thompson did indeed retype The Great Gatsby it was to find his (Hunter’s) own rhythms.

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jorgekafkazar January 14, 2011 at 2:39 pm

I can’t readily imagine anything more pointless than typing out “The Great Gatsby.” At best, it would be a waste of time; at worst, it would be donning a stylistic straitjacket that could hamper creative work for years to come. The idea of even having “a style” is foreign to me. IIRC, L. Sprague de Camp’s Science-Fiction Handbook, my very first writing book, warned against trying to write with a conscious style, especially not one borrowed from some famous writer. And writing like, say, Bradbury wouldn’t guarantee you could sell a thing, either. A style is a gestalt of dozens of elements: word choices, rhythm, balancing sentence length, balancing consonants, assonance, humor, darkness, tension, concealment, revelation, “timing,” and much more. Fail in one, and you produce only vapid imitations. A conscious effort to write like someone would thus significantly detract from the writer’s creative focus.
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Dan Brian January 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm

A) I never said you SHOULD adopt a style. If you’ve never felt the need to write like anyone else, awesome. Go for it.

B) I think that trying out different styles is important into figuring out what you want from your writing and that MANY writers (and probably the majority of successful writers) have done it at some point or another. On top of that, to discount the emotional distress and self-consciousness that goes into many writers’ works, is to discount the craft of writing itself. If all writers were as self-confident, as you guys say you are, out of the gate, we would have a lot more shitty writers roaming the planet. Writers write, not only for themselves, but for you, the reader. It’s a self-conscious act in itself, unless you never want it to be read.

Overall, what I’m saying is, don’t shit on someone’s creative process, even if it involves a high degree of self-consciousness. It’s something they need to work through themselves and they’ll be better for it. If you want everyone to feel good about whatever they write, go write another Chicken Soup book.

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Shane Arthur January 14, 2011 at 3:38 pm

@Dan: Show me one place in my article where I say, “I’m Shane and I’m self-confident.” You won’t find that, but you will find this: “Sure, reading the greats helps you write better.”

I also agree that the writing process “involves a high degree of self-consciousness.” And I’d emphasize “self” in that statement, as in they should strive to be themselves and avoid trying to be like those people who wear jerseys with athletes’s names on them and yell that athlete’s name whenever they do something good…”Jordan for three!!!!!!” “I’m Michael Vick!!!”

So, I guess we’re saying the same thing after all, and I guess I’ll just have to accept your self-confident, don’t-shit-on-people, write-a-chicken-soup-book command style. 😉
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Cathy Miller January 14, 2011 at 3:52 pm

@Dan-I think this is a fine example of the eye of the beholder as I did nor read this post and come to the conclusion that Shane was criticizing someone’s “creative process.” Rather, it was an attempt to show those who are self-critical and lacking confidence in their own style that what they have to say and how they say it matters.

Perhaps it’s my approach of finding the positive, even if it takes the form of another Chicken Soup book.
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