Words at Work: Kickstart your writing through imitation

Have you ever wondered how writers come up with all those attention-grabbing blogs, reports, newsletters, proposals—even e-mails? More than likely, they used one of the oldest methods for developing and inspiring your writing: deconstruction.

This easy technique involves simply paying attention to what excites you as you read other people’s writing. Along the way, you’ll learn new ways to engage your readers and jog your memory about ways you already know, but that slip your mind as you race through a busy day. You’ll also discover more about your own personal goals and aspirations. Put another way, you’ll realize that what you admire, you aspire to. The frisson you feel while reading signals that you’re emotionally connected to this writing, an experience way more powerful than an intellectual response.

Rejoice when you read something that sizzles…. It’s alerting you to a new level of writing you are poised to achieve.

I’ve dubbed this time-tested approach “Imitate to Innovate,” a notion that struck me while I was visiting an art museum. A text panel explained that Impressionist painters Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt applied for permits to the Louvre to copy the Great Masters. I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that it was OK to copy greatness. Wasn’t that cheating? Weren’t we taught in school never to copy? For writers, doesn’t that edge dangerously close to plagiarism?

Eventually, though, I realized that imitating was simply an exercise, not a finished product. Degas and Cassatt, for example, developed their own unmistakable styles; they just wanted to practice techniques and prime their creativity at the same time. We learn by example, by mimicking greatness until it feels natural to us.

In case you’re still worried that this practice sounds like copying, consider the words of William Zinsser in his classic book, On Writing Well: “Don’t ever hesitate to imitate another writer—every artist learning his craft needs some models. Eventually, you’ll find your own voice and shed the skin of the writer you imitated. But pick only the best models.”

Deconstruction, step by step

Here’s how to borrow from the best so you can develop your own voice, style and confidence.

Step #1: Pay close attention to writing you love—the writing you wish you could do. Maybe it makes your heart expand as you read it—or maybe you burn with a little envy. Either way works. The key is to find writing that stirs your passion.

Step #2: Now deconstruct it. Analyze how it’s organized and how the author incorporates creative techniques as well as stories and examples into the content.

Step #3: Start practicing these techniques as your write your own content—but don’t expect too much too soon. Take small steps. It will take time for you to gradually incorporate these exciting changes into your writing.

Open a swipe file

To build a collection of writing that inspires you, build a swipe file: a collection of writing you admire, stored in a place where we can easily find it again. For example, keep a file of subject lines that were so compelling that you couldn’t not open the e-mails. And remember the colleague’s report that impressed you so much, or the competitor’s proposal that won the account? Keep them in a swipe file for those days you don’t feel as creative as you’d like. They’ll inspire you to write with more creativity and style.

But before you file them away, take a closer look at them. Again, explore why you like them so much. Ask yourself:

1. How does the piece start? How does the writer grab your attention: describing a scene, telling a story, asking a question, creating a “what if” scenario?

2. What’s in the middle? How did the writer organize the information? What techniques made the information flow seamlessly? Bullets, numbers, transitions, subheads? How did the writer keep the middle from sagging (an all-too-common problem)?

3.Did the writer use the power of story? Stories can be used to grab attention, to make a point, to make the message more memorable. If you’re using a longer or more complex story, tell it in stages to keep the readers reading to find out how it ends.

4. How does it end? Is there a notable resolution? Does it wind everything up with a twist or finish the scenario started at the beginning? Is there a call to action, when appropriate?

5. Do creative techniques make the content more engaging and memorable? For example, does the writer employ any of the following?

  • A variety of sentence structures: short, long, in-between, even fragments? Together, they add punch that keeps readers engaged. Too many long sentences lull them to sleep.
  • Vivid verbs: Jettison 50 percent of those boring is-are-were verbs that plague most writing. Replace them with words like brandish, festoon, launch, ravage, rummage, shout, taunt, unfettered, wither and wilt, to list a few. Last week I read the verb “canoodle” and added it to my favorites list. Create your own list of vivid verbs.
  • Similes: Does the writer explain something complex with a comparison to something familiar? Similes help you bring your readers up to speed quickly. I keep a list of these too, like this one: “Our new software assesses and strengthens your marketing strategies like a personal trainer, keeping you on target and in shape.” That simile delivers memorable, visceral information in just one sentence.
  • Alliteration, pull quotes, rhyme, sensory information, bullets and numbers. These tricks of the writing trade are proven to attract attention, make your message more memorable, and clarify your writing so your readers can absorb your message.

So rejoice when you read something that sizzles. First, it deserves your attention and appreciation. Second, it’s alerting you to a new level of writing you are poised to achieve. As you read magazines you enjoy, glean ideas that you can bring to your business writing. Find added inspiration by reading something different from your usual sources. If you read The Economist, for example, read The New York Times business section. Or better yet, the arts section. And pay attention to techniques that novelists use. Take a different path and bring what you discover to your business writing. You’ll find writing more enjoyable—and the results more than satisfying.

Lynda McDaniel
Lynda McDaniel, “Your Write with Confidence Coach,” is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and works with clients worldwide.

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