My Favorite Writing Technique
I've been teasing you for months about my favorite writing technique—the one I mention at the bottom of each blog:
... if you haven't already read it, get a copy of A Life for a Life so you can see how I tell stories—and then copy what you like about my style. It's a powerful technique I call Imitate to Innovate (more on that in a future blog).
Well, this is the future blog! Have you ever wondered how writers come up with creative stories, characters, blogs, newsletters ... whatever they want to write? A lot of writers use deconstruction. This easy technique simply involves paying attention to what excites you as you read other people’s writing. As you do, you’ll learn new ways to engage your readers. The frisson you feel while reading other people’s writing signals that you’re emotionally connected to their style. Put another way, you’ll realize that what you admire, you aspire to. I’ve dubbed this time-tested method “Imitate to Innovate,” a notion that struck me while visiting the National Gallery. A text panel explained that 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 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.” (Page 127)
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 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, stories, and examples into the content.
Step #3: Start practicing these techniques as you write your own content. Don’t expect too much, too soon—take small steps. With time and practice, you’ll gradually incorporate these exciting changes into your writing style.
Open a Swipe File Swipe files refer to the age-old practice of saving things we admire in a file where we can find them again! In the case of writing, keep a file of subject lines that were so compelling that you couldn’t not open the e-mails. Or how about that colleague’s report that impressed you so much? For fiction writers, keep pencil and paper handy to job down verbs, descriptions, and characters that catch your eye as you read. They’ll help you write with more creativity and style when you sit down to do your own original writing.
Keep your examples in a swipe file for those days you don’t feel as creative as you’d like—and let them inspire you.
Later this month, I’ll add ways to delve deeper into deconstruction.
Would you like a free copy of the short story that started my fiction-writing career: “A Nose for Murder”? Just sign up below, and I’ll send you your own copy to enjoy. And from time to time, I’ll keep you posted with musings about writing and updates on my sequels to A Life for a Life and other books.