Toronto Walk of Fame star for Margaret Atwood

Should You Imitate Your Favourite Writers?

“I’ll never be able to write like that!” is a thought that occasionally crashes through my mind like a rhinoceros in bovver boots—usually when I’m reading Terry Pratchett or Anne Lamott or David Sedaris or Maya Angelou.

I’m getting better at tripping up that rhinoceros before it rampages through my writing and destroys all my confidence—but it’s tough.

It’s much easier to read the writers I love, and despair that I’ll never be able to write like them, than it is to roll my sleeves up and get on with the tricky business of improving my craft.

Which is super-annoying because writing is hard. In fact, doing most things well is hard and requires effort. Yet we’re told, from when we’re babies, that if we’re talented, if we’re good at something, that thing should be easy. So when it isn’t easy, we feel like a failure.

It’s a scurrilous lie.

Yes, of course on occasion the words feel like they flow from my fingertips… but most of the time it doesn’t happen like that at all. It’s like dragging myself out of bed in the morning when it’s cold and I’ve not had enough sleep.

Or like eating my annual sprout.

Or running up that hill. (You’re singing it now, right?)

It’s a struggle.

I hate most of what I write, when I first write it. And then, when I read what someone else has written, I wonder why I can’t write just like that, and I hate myself (and them) a little bit more.

I don’t like feeling that way. It makes me small and mean and it kills my love of writing and my desire to do it well and my enthusiasm for doing anything at all except staring at my phone in despair.

So, I roll up my sleeves and make an effort to read in the spirit of loving and learning because comparison kills my joy and my writing.

And I remember this: I will never be able to write like Terry Pratchett or Maya Angelou or David Sedaris or Anne Lamott and that’s okay. Because if I did, I would be a pale imitation of them, and nobody wants that, least of all me.

So instead, here’s what I do (most of the time, anyway): I read the writing I love, and I look at it, carefully. I make a note of what I love specifically, and why. What works, and what doesn’t. What techniques are in there? Can I use them? How?

When I stumble across bad writing, I look at that too: why is it bad? What doesn’t work? What makes it painful to read? Do I do any of those things, and if so, where? What are my bad habits?

Above all, though, I find my own ideas, and I write about them. Dig into them to find the truth about what it is to be human, I guess. Or this human, at least.

I won’t be able to write like my favourite writers. Instead, I’ll start writing like me.

The more I learn, the more I read, the more I write—the more me I’ll sound.

So, imitate your favourite writers, by all means. I do. I try out the words and phrases and techniques they use, and see how they sound from my fingers, wrapped around my ideas.

Then discard what you can’t use or what doesn’t suit you or what sounds false in your mouth and don’t worry if it doesn’t come out sounding like them.

Next time you find yourself thinking, “I’ll never be able to write like that,” answer yourself with: “No, I won’t. And that’s okay. Because I’m learning to write like me.”