When Benjamin Franklin wanted
to improve his writing style, he chose a fairly clever method.
In his autobiography, he writes this account:
this time, I met with an odd volume of the Spectator.
I had never before seen any of [these magazines]. I bought
it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it.
I thought the writing excellent, and wished if possible
to imitate it. With that view, I took some of the papers,
and making short hints of the sentiments in each sentence,
laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the
book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing
each hinted sentence at length, and as fully as it had been
expressed before, in any suitable words that should occur
to me. Then I compared my Spectator with the original,
discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I
found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting
and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before
that time [. . .] since the continual search for
words of the same import, but of different length to suit
the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would
have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for
variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my
mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of
the tales in the Spectator, and turned them into
verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten
the prose, turned them back again.
. .] By comparing my work with the original, I discovered
many faults, and corrected them; but I sometimes had the
pleasure to fancy, that, in certain particulars of small
consequence, I had been fortunate enough to improve the
method or the language, and this encouraged me to think
that I might in time come to be a tolerable English
writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.
Franklin, "Autobiography." The Works of Benjamin
Franklin, ed. Jared Sparks. Boston: Hilliard, Gray and
Company, 1840. Volume I. pages 18-19.
Franklin's strategy was to imitate
the writing of various essayists in a literary magazine. He
attempted to paraphrase them in his own words but capture
the original style. He would alternate between turning the
passages into poetry and turning them into prose. These practices
stretched his vocabulary and his flexibility with language.
It developed his understanding of style by contrasting the way
he wrote a passage and the way Addison or Steele wrote it.
While Franklin prided himself
on this original method of learning style, the technique is
actually quite old. The Roman rhetoricians called it imitatio
(modern English imitation). For classical rhetoricians,
this idea of imitatio involved not only mimicking specific
writers like Virgil or Lucan, it also involved the trying
to say something in a variety of different ways. The late
medieval/early Renaissance writer Erasmus, for instance, in
his widely-used rhetorical guide, De duplici copia verborum
ac rerum, showed the student 150
different styles one might use when phrasing the Latin
sentence, "Your letter has delighted me very much"
(Tuae literae me magnopere delectarunt). In each case,
the trick is learning the number of options available to a
writer. That may take the form of Erasmus' exhaustive hypothetical
sentences, or more commonly imitating a writer one enjoys.
learned their own unique style by first imitating the
of other authors. Stephen King practiced by imitating Melville's
Moby Dick in college--and later imitated Emily Dickinson's
experimental punctuation in his novelette, Carrie.
Virgil practiced with Homeric passages before writing The Aeneid for
Emperor Augustus. Daniel Defoe imitated John Bunyan before
Robinson Crusoe, and Mark Twain paid homage to Daniel
Defoe before writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
If these literary masters succeeded and paradoxically learned
unique styles by imitation, why can't you? In this exercise,
we will compare passages written by diverse authors. To
this exercise, you will need to read select passages below.
I have tried to arrange these in pairs, so you can see
very different authors dealing with similar subject-matter.
When you have finished, attempt to create a similar passage
in the exercise below--but imitate a different author's