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...
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