In 1824, Charles Caleb Colton made this famous quote “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery“.
What most people don’t know is that Oscar Wilde later made an extended quote which puts things in perspective for many people, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”
Let’s face it. Not all of us are born writers. While we hope and pray that our children can write fantastic sentences at the drop of the hat, it takes a lot of hard work to master the basics before they can master the more advance techniques. The only way to do so is to practise by aping sentences before remodelling consistently to make it theirs. In fact, many writers and copywriter use this technique to improve their writing as well.
While plagiarism is definitely out of the question, imitation of sentences is definitely the top of the list for students who are unable to create interesting sentences. This exercise aids students greatly, especially if they want to transit from simple sentences to complex ones. If used well, this exercise can even introduce figurative language such as personification and alliteration in the future.
When students imitate sentences, students become aware of structure, which supports their understanding of punctuation and promotes style awareness: word order, varied sentence lengths and parallel structure, for example. However, the main idea behind this is to really ensure the students are introduced to a wide variety of sentences.
Even Great Writers Imitate
It may be a shock to some but many of the greatest writers copy sentences from others in order to vary their styles of writing. They steal word, they copy styles and they borrow thoughts. No masterpiece is completely original. Here are some examples of writers who copy from others until they make it:
William Shakespeare’s style of writing was heavily influenced by Ovid, the 1st century BC Roman poet. Many of his plays were similar to earlier histories and books ranging from history (the lives of Henry V, Richard III) to a novel titled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, which was written 30 years earlier.
When Steven Pressfield first started out, he copied Ernest Hemingway‘s works repeatedly in order to get a sense of his pacing, his storytelling, and his voice. He wanted to see how Hemingway constructed sentences, and how each sentence related to the ones around it.
So how can we go about it? We can start by taking a sentence or paragraph and change nouns, verbs, adjectives of the following paragraphs to alter the meaning. We leave basic sentence structure the same (articles, prepositions, commas, colons, etc.) alone.
We will use an example from Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness:
Original: The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish.
Changed: The air was smoky, electric, powerful.
Original: The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.
Changed: The long sets of music played on, overwhelming, into the hearts of excited youth.
The main aim is to change the words accordingly to the context while maintaining the basic structure of the sentences. You can take samples from famous works and tweak accordingly.