The skill in imitation

One somewhat controversial thing I believe about writing is that it’s very good to be able to imitate other writers’ styles. Other writers and scholars thereof might disagree, failing to see any practical application for it, and protesting that it’s more important to refine and develop your own unique voice rather than trying to copy someone else’s. (You often hear that argument when people denigrate the writing of fan fiction.) But I maintain it’s not only good practice, it’s actually a skill worth having for its own sake.

Voice is an important aspect of writing, as it influences mood, feel, tone, and style. But I think an author shouldn’t necessarily be limited, or limit themselves, to only one. As nice and useful as it can be to have a signature style, I think it’s good to be able to adapt your writing to sound different for different pieces, or even for establishing different characters. If you don’t find some way to be flexible that way, you run the risk of making everything sound the same no matter the feel of the piece you may be going for– or worse, you make everything sound like you, which I find to be a sign of immature work. So imitating the sound of other writers’ styles and voices is an exercise in developing your flexibility. It requires you to stretch yourself beyond your natural impulses or current artistics strengths in order to create something that sounds like someone else’s work, which broadens the possibilities for what you’re capable of depicting. It gives you more control over the voice you give any one project, and enables a wider variety of feels and effects you can impart to your work.

This for me ties into the appeal of fan fiction. I know not everybody is this way, but both when I’m reading and writing fan fiction, I’m looking for more of the story I already love, with more of the things I love about it. So I’m drawn to pieces that stylistically capture the soul of the original. That also means that when I’m writing it myself, that’s what I’m shooting for– something that believably feels like it could be part of what’s canon. So I make a special effort to study and emulate the way the original material is written in my fic. The best job I ever did at this was with my piece for the BBC radio comedy Cabin Pressure. I wrote basically a script for an additional episode of the series which, after the fashion of its idiosyncratic episode titling system, I called “San Tropez”. Cabin Pressure has a very specific, British style of humor with characters who have highly distinctive voices, and I worked very hard to capture them. If I may say so, I’m really proud of how good a job I did. I’ve gotten a number of comments from readers saying I nailed the style and voices exactly, and that it’s both funny and extremely in character.

But not only do I think it’s just good practice for increasing flexibility in other projects. I think it’s actually a useful skill in its own right. For collaborative projects, particularly ones that run for a while and have teams of writers, being able to fit in with the “house style” is essential. I have dreams of someday writing for television, and writers’ rooms have to have some degree of cohesion to make all the episodes feel consistent with each other. People tend to notice when the “voice” or “style” of a television show gets inconsistent or deviates from what is established, and reactions are usually disapproving. Sometimes it’s even at fault for what people describe as Seasonal Rot. In that case it would be a necessity for me to be able to adapt to a certain voice that may or may not naturally be mine.

So it’s more than just an amusing little “party trick” for writers of fan fiction. It’s actually a powerful developmental tool for a writer to expand their toolkit, and sometimes even demanded by a collaborative situation to keep the pieces all cohesive. So I like challenging myself to play in someone else’s sandbox every now and then.

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