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Style Comparisons: Different Authors?

When Benjamin Franklin wanted to improve his writing style, he chose a fairly clever method. In his autobiography, he writes this account:

About 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.

--Benjamin 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.

Many writers learned their own unique style by first imitating the style 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 attempting 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 their own unique styles by imitation, why can't you? In this exercise, we will compare passages written by diverse authors. To do this exercise, you will need to read select passages below. I have tried to arrange these in pairs, so you can see two 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 style.

 

 

 
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