“For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”
—Catherine Drinker Bowen

Why You Should Copy Other Writers

The truth is every great writer has imitated the great writers before him or her. To find your voice, you have to take on the voices of others.

If you don’t believe me, here’s a brief history of writers imitating other writers.

Steven Pressfield, when he was first starting out, typed out pages and pages of Hemingway just to get a sense of his pacing, his storytelling, and his voice. He copied Hemingway to get into his head and understand how he constructed sentences, and how each sentence related to the ones around it.


Photo by Alan Cleaver

When Billy Collins read the poet Wallace Stevens he thought he was reading the “apex of poetry.” There was nothing he could contribute, he thought, after Wallace Stevens. So what did he do? He copied him, forcing himself to write imitations of Wallace Stevens poems. I once heard an interview where he said he would have been happy if only he could be a kind of “second rate Wallace Stevens.” Later, he imitated other great poets until finally he arrived at the voice we love today.

Cormac McCarthy once said, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books.” He is known to quote liberally from other books such as the Bible, Moby Dick, Milton, and even to take whole paragraphs and pages from 19th century books of history. He stole the villain of Blood Meridian nearly word from Samuel Chamberlain‘s My Confessions. 

William Shakespeare may have been the most successful copier. His style was heavily influenced by Ovid, the 1st century BC Roman poet. He also “borrowed” significantly for the plots of his plays. He copied from history (the lives of Henry V, Richard III) and from ancient Roman playwrights (Comedy of Errors is based on a play by Plautus). There was even a book written thirty years before Romeo and Juliet called The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. Yes, that was spelled with two L’s.

Three Rules for Copiers

Writers steal, borrow, and copy. It may be ugly, as Cormac said, but it’s true. No masterpiece is completely original. As you find your voice, feel free to steal and imitate from other writers.

However, here are three rules to follow if you do:

1. “Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; copy from two, it’s research,” said John Milton.

If you are going to imitate, don’t imitate just one author. Imitate several. The odd combination of them all will give your style its own flare.

However, be sure to choose who you imitate carefully. For example, you may not want to imitate Stephenie Meyer.

2. Be influenced “in a way that no one recognizes,” said Billy Collins.

Take your influencers style and tweak it just enough to give it an air of originality. In other words, make their style your own. Maybe no one will ever know you were copying!

3. Transcend your influences.

Your job is to go farther than those you’re imitating, to push the boundaries of the language and bring something new to the world.

I believe this happens naturally. If you imitate long enough, eventually, you’ll find your own voice. It will be some crazy combination of everyone you’ve imitated plus something that is wholly you.

So go out there and steal something. If you do it enough, the world will be better for it.

What do you think? Is copying okay? Do you copy from other writers?


Let’s copy (see what I did there?) an exercise from Steven Pressfield.

Go find a book by one of your favorite authors, flip to a random page, and start typing it word for word. Go slow, so you can really understand what each sentence is doing. Copy their work for fifteen minutes.

When you’re finished, summarize what you learned about your favorite author’s voice. Post your summary in the comments section.

Note: Originally, I asked you to post your copied work here. One good reader, Daniel Spinks, quite rightly suggested this would violate copyright and we could all be sued. So yeah, don’t do that. 🙂

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Very well said Joe. Go through the sea of voices, and use them to find your voice. We must always attempt to stand a bit higher, and reach a bit further by standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before us.

    • Yvettecarol

      Yeah perfect way of putting it Cole. I agree!

  • My advanced comp professor used to make us do these exercises – he would give us a sheet of sentences from different classic authors and have us write out the format of the sentence beneath it, word by word ( ex : noun, verb, adverb, conjunction…) Then we were asked to create an entirely new sentence with completely different words just by following the format. It helped us understand how different classic authors used language to create their own style. I loved doing it! I need to make myself do them again.

    • Dreamweaver526

       I think I may try your exercise, too, Bethany. Any good sentences come to mind that I can play with?

    • That’s a good idea!

  • Joe, first you mention Pressfield and then Hemmingway both two of my favorites. Love it! I’d say there is good copying and bad copying honestly. Good copying takes things a step further and in a different direction. Bad copying is bland and has nothing new to offer than the original. At that point it is just stealing.

    One example I’d like to give (if that’s alright) is this post from my friend Andi Cumbo. http://www.andilit.com/2012/01/23/the-ten-greatest-things-about-being-a-full-time-writer/

    From Andi’s post, I created this: http://www.unknownjim.com/lifeofwriter/

    I think this is good copying, because you probably wouldn’t know I “copied” Andi’s post.

    • Marianne

      Thanks Jim.  

  • ee

    If alluding to other famous stories is copying, then yes, I do it all the time.

  • “During Fourth of July week, the mill closed. Employees with five years or more at Worumbo got the week off with pay. Those with fewer than five years were offered work on a crew that was going to clean the mill from top to bottom, including the basement, which hadn’t been touched in forty or fifty years. I probably would have agreed to work on this crew — it was time and a half — but all the positions were filled long before the foreman got down to the high school kids, who’d be gone in September. When I got back to work the following week, one of the dyehouse guys told me I should have been there, it was wild. ‘The rats down in that basement were big as cats,’ he said. ‘Some of them, g—-m if they weren’t as big as DOGS.’
    Rats as big as dogs! Yow!
    One day late in my final semester at college, finals over and at loose ends, I recalled the dyehouse guy’s story about the rats under the mill — big as cats, g—-m, some as big as DOGS — and started writing a story called “Graveyard Shift”. I was only passing the time on a late spring afternnoon, but two months later Cavalier magazine bought the story for two hundered dollars. I had sold two other stories previous to this, but they had brought in a total of just sixty-five dollars. This was three times that, and at a single stroke. It took my breath away, it did. I was rich.” ~Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

    I like the author’s conversational style — he could be out on the patio swapping war stories with fellow writers, y’know? To me this passage conveys the taken-for-granted naturalness of being obsessed with writing, expecially when one is young and knows he has talent but needs to prove it to himself and the world by being published and thus acknowledged.

  • Thanks for this exercise, Joe! Years ago, I was obsessed with Charles Bukowski. I loved his short, one-two punch sentences. I had, kind of, forgotten about him, but thought of Bukowski when I read this post. Here’s the first 500 words from “Ham On Rye”:

    The first thing I remember is being under something. It was a table. I saw a table. I saw a table leg. I saw the legs of people, and a portion of the tablecloth hanging down. It was dark under there. I liked being under there. It must have been in Germany. I must have been between one and two years old. It was 1922. I felt good under the table. Nobody seemed to know I was there. There was sunlight upon the rug and on the legs of the people. I liked the sunlight. The legs of the people were not interesting, not like the tablecloth which hung down, not like the table leg, not like the sunlight.

    Then there was nothing…then a Christmas tree. Candles. Bird ornaments: birds with small berry branches in their beaks. A star. Two large people fighting, screaming. People eating, always people eating. I ate too. My spoon was bent so that if I wanted to eat I had to pick the spoon up with my right hand. If I picked it up with my left hand, the spoon bent away from my mouth. I wanted to pick the spoon up with my left hand.

    Two people, one larger with curly hair, a big nose, a big mouth, much eyebrow; the larger person always seeming to be angry, often screaming; the smaller person quiet, round face, paler with large eyes. I was afraid of both of them. Sometimes there was a third, a fat one who wore dresses with lace at the throat. She wore a large brooch and had many warts on her face with little hairs growing out of them. “Emily,” they called her. These people didn’t seem happy together. Emily was the grandmother, my father’s mother. My father’s name was “Henry”. My mother’s name was “Katherine”. I never spoke to them by name. I was “Henry, Jr.” These people spoke German most of the time and in the beginning I did too.

    The first thing I remember my grandmother saying was, “I will bury all of you!” She said this the first time just before we began eating a meal, and she was to say it many times after that, just before we began to eat. Eating seemed very important. We ate mashed potatoes and gravy, especially on Sundays. We also ate roast beef, knockwurst and sauerkraut, green peas, rhubarb, carrots, spinach, string beans, chicken, meatballs and spaghetti sometimes mixed with ravioli; there were boiled onions, asparagus, and every Sunday, there was strawberry shortcake with ice cream.

    *** *** ***
    What I learned: When I talk, I tend to ramble on and on and have a hard time getting to the point. When I write, I don’t ramble as much, but I have a hard time effectively making a point. What I loved about revisiting Bukowski’s voice was how he was able to let you kinow exactly what was going on, and set the tone, without weighing things down with a ton of description, analogies, metaphors, etc, etc. He just put it out there and, as a reader, you got the point.

    I also realized including mundane details (like the long list of food they ate) may, on the onset, seem indulgent and unnecessary, but it’s these small details that made up the bigger picture–the contrast between the pleasures of food vs. the extreme violence and fear he experienced as a child.

    Now, I’m inspired to check out more of his poetry as well to really examine his voice.

    This exercise was awesome!

    • Marianne

      That was beautiful.  I’ve never read anything by him, but now I will.  I’ve heard him praised by many.  

    • OK, Bukowski is channeling Hemingway’s short, simple sentences. Every writer nods to the writers before.

  • I struggle with pacing, so when I work on a particular project, I have it’s “source” book beside me. If my pacing goes off, I read a passage of the book to get back into the flow. Each project I’ve worked on so far has a different “source” so they have a different kind of rhythm. This is an excellent exercise, and I’ve never thought to approach writing this way. I’ll definitely try this. Thanks so much

  • Marianne

    This is the first paragraph of “Gillead” by Marilynne Robinson.  

    I like it because of the rhythm,  and the simple language that describes and sets up these characters and this book.  John Ames, the narrator, is in his seventies and has a son who is very young.  He is writing him a letter about who he, John Ames is, about his life and his ancestors.  In this section we see his gentleness and his humor and the love of his son.  My favorite part though is the description of the look on the child’s face when he thinks he’s being laughed at “a furious pride, very passionate and stern”.  I can see these characters and believe in them from the onset.  And I like the last sentence “I will miss them”. The book is about what he will miss on the earth when he dies although he fully expects to be with the “Good Lord”.  

    I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.  I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! Because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never saw in my life on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern.  I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.  

    • Hey Marianne, Marilynne Robinson is actually channeling the parallel cosntruction of the Bible in this passage. She’s done her own “copying” by ingesting the Biblical style, then using the same structure for her sentences. I think the technical term for this is “parataxis” but I could be wrong.

      • Marianne

        Yes I imagine it was intentional since the protagonist is a minister, and I agree that “nothing is original” as my printmaking professor in college told us, but I don’t think that should subtract from the artistry of Marilynne Robinson.  Her prose is lyrical and full of knowledge, and her essays are genius.  

    • Yvettecarol

      Nice. I like the pace of that writing style 🙂

  • Marianne

    We did this in painting and drawing too when I took them in college, copied Da Vinci and Goya and Van Gogh.  It makes you slow done to see how the master’s do it.  I think reading is more important though than copying and you still get some of the rhythms in your head from reading.  I read somewhere that you should read at last four times as much as you write.  I can’t remember where I saw that.  

    • Dreamweaver526

       I remember doing this in high school. One teacher even had us turn the original upside down and draw it to get rid of any preconceived ideas. Hmmmm. I wonder if there’s a way to do that with writing. ???

      • Palesa Floret

        That’s how Da Vinci learned as well.

    • Yvettecarol

      In that case I’ve been doing it the wrong way round for years! That’s the first I’ve heard of 4 to 1 Marianne, most interesting factoid to file in my brain, thanks.

  • A few other noted “copiers.”  Bach, in his old age when Verdi was coming on as the new musician to beat, copied out Verdi’s music note-for-note to see what kind of tricks the young musician was up to. Jack London copied all kinds of writers to get a feel for the way they dealt with language (maybe he missed a lesson or two along the way 🙂 ). 

    My writing teacher, Priscilla Long, has a series of exercises that involve writing out great sentences and imitating the diction, color words, syntax, etc.  After you do this word-for-word (with your own material, by the way), you take the practice away from the exact format of the great sentence you’re working with and create more sentences using the same structure. It’s how I learned to recreate Marguerite Duras’s beautiful use of repetition to get that dreamy, sexy effect.  I highly recommend Priscilla’s fabulous book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor which outlines this practice and talks about why it’s necessary to make yourself a better writer. 

    • Bach. That conniving character.

      Thanks for this, Cynthia. Fascinating.

  • If I get sued, Joe, I’m coming after you.

    • Especially if I’m the person that sues you? 🙂

      • Yup.
        (Although, I wouldn’t recommend it. Your legal fees will cost more than I’m worth).Katie

        • Ha!

          • Thanks, Joe and Helpful Reader, for the well-deserved rap on the knuckles.  I redid my post, simply citing the passage from King, and reposting my comments on it.

    • solomon

      o don’t say that ,Joe is my man

  • Kylie

    Thank you for this timely advice! Have just done your suggested exercise and then gone back over the work I copied out.  I worked out why I loved the writing e.g. descriptions, ability to hook reader in straight up and quirkiness. And it helped clear the headspace of “I’m never going to be as good as them…”

  • This is the third time in a week I’ve heard this message. Hmm…

    • Really?! Wow. Who else talked about it?

      • Jeff Goins: http://goinswriter.com/steal/
        Cant remember the other one, but an old piece. Probably James Watkins (I dig through his old stuff all the time). Obviously it’s good advice!

  • I love this, lol! And no, I didn’t copy, but wrote the following post about the writer’s mood. Thank you for putting it into such fun words and helping all of us get better at using resources! 

  • Dreamweaver526

    I love this exercise. Firstly, I learned I need to cut my nails because I made so many typos. But that’s beside the point. I wrote an excerpt from Maggie Stiefvater’s Linger. Maggie has a beautifully simple and poetic voice. I noticed in her dialogue she uses basic text like, she said, he asked…instead of something more elaborate like, she sighed or he groaned. I think I do that a lot in my writing and I’ve heard AEs don’t really care for that too much. Any thoughts?

    Here is the excerpt if anyone is interested.
         “Do you mind if I go by Olivia’s?” Grace asked, climbing into the car, bringing in a rush of cold air with her. In the passenger seat, I recoiled, and she hurriedly shut the door behind her. She said, “Sorry about that. It go really cold, didn’t it? Anyway, I don’t want to, you know, actually go inside. Just drive by. Rachel said that a wolf had seen scratching around Olivia’s house. So maybe we could pick up a trail near there?”
        “Go for it, “ I said. Taking her hand from where it rested, I kissed her fingertips before replacing it on the wheel. I slouched down in my seat and got my translation of Rilke I’d brought to read while I waited for her.
        Grace’s lips lifted slightly at my touch, but she didn’t say anything as she pulled out of the lot. I watched her face, etched into concentration, mouth set in a firm line, and waited to see if she was ready to say what was on her mind. When she didn’t, I picked up the volume of Rilke and slouched down in my seat.
        “What are you reading?” Grace asked, after a long space of silence.
        I was fairly certain that pragmatic grace would not have heard of Rilke. “Poetry.”
        Grace sighed and gazed out at the dead white sky that seemed to press down on the road before us. “I don’t get poetry.” She seemed to realize her statement might offend, because she hurriedly added, “Maybe I’m reading the wrong stuff.”
        “You’re probably just reading it wrong,” I said. I’d seen Grace’s to-be-read pile; nonfiction, books about things, not about how things were described. “You have to listen to the pattern of the words, not just what they’re saying. Like a song.” When she frowned, I paged through my book and scooted closer to her on the bench seat, so that our hip bones were pressed together.
        Grace glanced down at the page. “That’s not even in English!”
        “Some of them are,” I said. I sighed, remembering. “Ulrik was using Rilke to teach me German. And now I’m going to use it to teach you poetry.”
        “Clearly a foreign language,” Grace said.
        “Clearly,” I agreed. “Listen to this….(character reads in German)
        Grace’s face was puzzled. She chewed her lip in a cute, frustrated sort of way. “So what’s it mean?”
        “That’s not the point. The point is what it sounds like. Not just what it means.” I struggle to find words for what I meant. What I wanted to do was remind her of how she’d fallen in love with me as a wolf. Without words. Seeing beyond the obvious meaning of my wolf skin to what was inside. To whatever it was that made me Sam, always.

  • Yvettecarol

    Hi Joe! Finally got around to reading this one. Phew. Well I didn’t write about ‘copying’ as such however we all seem to be linked up at the moment. I hadn’t read this until today. Yet yesterday I posted on ‘writing for children’ on WANAtribe a question to the group. I asked them what author do they aspire to write like?

    That sprang from a discussion based on something you said to me once ‘good writing is good writing’ (no matter the genre).

    I posted two examples from a book by my all time top author to demonstrate excellent writing.

    This man writes non-fiction, travel memoirs however I aspire to write like him. His name is William Dalyrmple. I’ll put the two pieces here. Maybe someone else can recognise who he is ‘copying’? Not sure. All I know is the man is amaaaazing!!!
    I saw him speak at the Readers & Writers festival here a couple of years ago though…and I have to admit I walked out (after having paid a small fortune too)…but it turns out some writers are better writers than speakers! 🙂 Nevertheless that one disappointment wasn’t enough to knock him off the perch. He’s still a great example of good writing is good writing.

    ‘Scarlet flamboya trees corkscrew out of the cobbles.’

    How good is that for a description of scene?!
    Or this for a character description:

    ‘He was a strange dark-complexioned man with a black waistcoat and white kurta pyjamas. He never walked straight, but rocked from side to side.’

    It never occurred to me to try copying his style in the way you talk about here. I may just try that….
    You want to join WANAtribe? Here’s an invitation  http://wanatribe.ning.com/?xgi=0eYwHc81BmYKvb

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  • I copied the passage in”On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”, where Stephen King recounts how a fellow mill worker’s description of rats as big as dogs in the mill’s decades-deserted basement led to his writing the story “Night Shift”. 

    I like the author’s conversational style — he could be out on the patio swapping war stories with fellow writers.  To me the passage conveys the taken-for-granted naturalness of being obsessed with writing, especially when one is young and knows he has talent but needs to prove it to himself and the world by being published and thus acknowledged.

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  • LKWatts

    Hi Joe,

    This is why I think you should read as much as you can. Therefore you’re not purposely copying one single writer but you’re allowing your subconscious to digest the words of many different authors.

    • I agree. Kind of.

      I think you can read a dozen different books and not learn a single thing about writing. Good writers don’t read, they study books. They pick the plots apart and the sentences apart. And part of studying is copying. Reading is great and every writer should read, but reading alone isn’t enough to learn what you need to learn, in my opinion.

      • Chris Evans

        Do they really do this? Do they really pick apart the books methodically or do they just take a subtle influence from their prose? I’m about to embark on my first novel and need to develop my writing style. It feels like cheating to study another authors writing, but I know that mine could be more literary and would benefit from it. I guess I’m just looking for reassurance that it’s ok.

  • Melissa

    I just did this one. I liked it. I copied a random part of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise.” I like how he uses a lot of adjectives in such a way that makes it obvious that writers observe the little things. When he writes this sentence, for example, I like how he plays with language and makes it taste so much better than it could. “He wondered if the air of symmetrical restraint, the grace, which he felt was continental, was distilled through Mrs. Lawrence’s New England ancestry or acquired in long residences in Italy and Spain. ” He could have just said, Mrs. Lawrence was dignified, but instead he chooses to go the long way around and it’s a fun journey! 

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