In the early 1800s, an English writer named Charles Caleb Colton published a book of aphorisms, including one still popular today: “Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.” (Added later, “form” rounds out the way we know it today.)
Not always. Witness the Fox News Channel lawsuit against satirist Al Franken for employing its trademarked phrase in the subtitle of his new book, “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”
But for those of us trying to become better writers, imitation is more than flattery; it’s a powerful and time-honored way to master the craft. “Numerous writers — Somerset Maugham and Joan Didion come to mind — recall copying long passages verbatim from favorite writers, learning with every line,” says Stephen Koch in “The Modern Library’s Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”
Over the years, I’ve learned important lessons by copying out lines, passages, even entire stories by other writers whose work I admire and would like to emulate.
Typing Wall Street Journal features taught me the anatomy of a nut graf, that section of context high up in a story that tells readers what a story is about and why they should read it.
Copying word for word short stories by Larry Woiwode and Alice Adams and passages from novelists Richard Price and Stewart O’Nan taught me a variety of lessons — the evocative power of olfactory details, for instance — about the art of fiction that writers in any form can profit by using.
But a freelance magazine writing experience more than a decade ago made me a believer in a practice I’ve come to call “modeling lessons.”
It was a dream assignment. The Washington Post Magazine asked me to write a profile of the first Vietnamese graduate of West Point. Tam Minh Pham was a young man who marched with the long gray line of cadets in 1974, returning home just in time for the fall of his country and six years of imprisonment. But his American roommate never forgot him and 20 years later marshaled his classmates to cut through bureaucratic red tape and bring their buddy to America for a new life.
It didn’t take much reporting for me to decide that this was a powerful story.
But when I asked my editor about length, I was disappointed when he said to keep it to about 2,000 words because the piece had been slotted as a second feature.
I protested — it was a great cover story, full of drama and detail — but the top editor’s mind apparently was made up.
I loosened my newspaper writing reins and wrote the longest nut graf of my life.Fine, I said, but asked for back copies of the magazine and downloaded several others from a database. Back at my desk, I studied several cover pieces, but it wasn’t until I began actually copying them out verbatim that I began to understand the magazine’s formula.
As a newspaper reporter, I routinely kept my leads to a single paragraph that if not brief enough would be trimmed by a copy editor less enamored of my words than I.
But as I typed out the Post magazine leads by its cover stars (Peter Perl, Madeleine Blais, David Finkel, Walt Harrington), it was clear the rules were different.
Their leads were several grafs long, narrative scenes that consumed 500-600 words and featured a vivid main character in action in a specific place and time.
Typically, the nut graf that followed the Post‘s “you are there” close-up openings was, in cinematic terms, a wide-shot. Evelynne Kramer, former editor of The Boston Globe Magazine called it “opening the aperture,” a passage that gave the reader the context and background to satisfy the curiosity piqued by the lead. If the lead showed the story, the nut graf told it. But unlike my 50-75 word newspaper nut grafs, the magazine version was more expansive.
After I’d typed about a half-dozen openings of Post magazine cover stories, I figured I had the formula sussed and was ready to try my own.
In my first interview with Pham, he’d recounted an experience one night in prison that seemed to have all the ingredients of a powerful opening. Bolstered by further reporting, I recreated it this way.
As usual, bribes loosened the guards’ tongues. Another transfer was coming. But this time, after four years in jungle camps guarded by the North Vietnamese army, the inmates were going to a prison run by the Cong An, the security police. When he heard the rumor, Tam Minh Pham knew what to do. For years, he’d heard the stories about the cruel men in yellow uniforms who took people away in the dead of night, about the torture, the killings. He waited for the camp to quiet down and the night air to fill with the scent of cooking fires, and then he crept out of his bamboo hut to the garden.
Each barracks was permitted a tiny plot — sweet potatoes, lettuce and herbs — to supplement the meager rations of sand-tainted rice and the snakes and rats the prisoners could catch. Glancing over his shoulder, Pham dug in the dirt until his fingers touched metal.
The rusting box once held 200 rounds of ammunition for an American M-60 machine gun. Now it contained 10 notebooks, the kind he used to fill as a schoolboy. For months, he’d been scribbling his life story. He wrote in English for protection, but it also was the appropriate language for a young man’s odyssey from Saigon to the United States Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1974, the first South Vietnamese ever to wear the gold academy ring. Faithful to the West Point credo of duty, honor and country, Pham returned home to rejoin the Army of the Republic of Vietnam — just in time to experience its final, humiliating defeat. Then, like hundreds of thousands of others abandoned by the Americans when they withdrew in April 1975, he disappeared into the gulag of reeducation camps scattered in the jungles.
He fantasized sometimes that his West Point classmates would rescue him. Knee-deep in a rice paddy, laboring at gunpoint for the new socialist regime, he imagined a spaceship swooping out of the clouds and cadets in dress gray carrying him and his friends to freedom.
Crouching now in the dirt, he took the tattered notebooks out of the ammo box and leafed through the pages. It was all there, good and bad: the Tet Offensive, his turning point; his four years at West Point with McBrayer, Hogan, Ciupak and his other buddies in Company I-2; the chaotic April day he lost his class ring and his country. But it was more than words on a page: Writing had kept him going. He thought of the memoir as his breath, his heartbeat, the child of his soul.
How he wished that spaceship would come now; he’d even stay behind if they could just take his memoir back, so cadets could learn what he had learned about survival. He didn’t dare risk trying to smuggle it into the police camp; a written tribute to democracy and friendship with Americans might as well be a death warrant. He opened his Zippo, struck the flint and began feeding the notebooks to the flame, a few pages at a time, afraid that a larger fire might attract the guards.
In all the months of starvation and sickness, brutality and despair, Pham had never broken down. Not when he left his parents and family behind in Saigon, nor when he dug a grave for a friend who had slit his wrists and dived into a river to find the only escape possible. Not even in the darkest moments, when he contemplated suicide himself.
The air was alive with cricket song, the distant calls of ducks, the hissing of campfires. But he had never felt so alone or forgotten. He looked up at the sky, shot with stars. How vast the universe, he thought, and yet there was no room in this world for these pages. Tears rolled down his cheeks as the wind took the ashes of his life story and carried them, dancing like fireflies, into the jungle beyond.
Now I needed to move the camera back and give the reader a firmer grasp on what they were reading and why. I loosened my newspaper writing reins and wrote the longest nut graf of my life.
I reined myself in after that, trying to keep to the 2,000 word limit, and turned it in. A couple of days later, my editor called:
You need to make it longer.
Because it’s going to be the cover piece. (You can read the entire story here.)
The lesson I learned was this: you can discover your own voice by listening to other writers, and one of the best ways to listen is by copying out their words.
This practice horrifies some respected writers and teachers; write your own damn stories, they say. But if we were visual artists, would anyone look askance at me walking across the street to the Salvador Dali Museum here in St. Petersburg, Fla., to copy the paintings of that master to see how he used color and shadow and contrast?
I’m not talking about plagiarism. Rather, modeling is copying stories to gain a more intimate understanding of the variety of decisions writers make to organize material, select language, and shape sentences.
But now’s a good time for my one caveat about modeling lessons: I always copy the byline at the top of the story just in case I get deluded and confuse my copying with someone else’s writing.
Properly credited, I start copying.
When something strikes me, I’ll hit the Caps Lock and record my observations:
Wow, notice how that long sentence is followed by a short, three-word one, stopping me in my tracks to pay attention. Varying sentence length is a good way to affect pace.
Rick Bragg’s quotes are rarely very long: (“I need my morning glory.”) They’re punchy and have the flavor of human speech.
See how Carol McCabe’s leads follow a pattern? (“Cold rain spattered on the sand outside the gray house where Worthe Sutherland and his wife Channie P. Sutherland live.” “The Bicentennial tourists flowed through Paul Revere’s Mall.” “Three trailer trucks growled impatiently as a frail black buggy turned onto Route 340.”) Subject-Verb-Object. Concrete nouns, vivid active verbs. I’ve got to try that.
I believe that broadcast and online writers could profit equally from copying successful stories in their medium. They’d do well to study how the other writing elements — audio, video, interactivity — figure in. If I were breaking into broadcast or online or trying to improve my skills, I’d want to model the work of John Larson, Bob Dotson, and Steve Hartman.
Whomever you model, and however you do it, the point is to pay attention to what the writer is doing and what effect it has on you, the reader. Most of all, writing is about impact, and writers need to learn how to make one, using all the tools at their disposal.
“Do not fear imitation,” says Stephen Koch. “Nobody sensible pursues an imitative style as a long-term goal, but all accomplished writers know that the notion of pure originality is a childish fantasy. Up to a point, imitation is the path to discovery and essential to growth.”
In the end, you must use your own words to become the writer you want to be, but I’ve profited from learning how other writers used theirs. And I hope you can, too.