They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. It is also the most obnoxious. As I am reading a good bit of a book on writing this morning, I have decided to take a short break and do some writing myself. I wanted to throw up my current list of ten ways to be a good writer. Hope you enjoy.

My top ten ways to improve writing skills are as follows:

  1. Read
  2. Read
  3. Read
  4. Read
  5. Read
  6. Read
  7. Read
  8. Read
  9. Read
  10. Imitate

The book I am reading stresses our need as educators to stop stressing grammar so much in our student’s writing and instead push students to engage their imaginations, their creativity, their souls. Now, any English major initially has a billion red flags shoot up when we discuss pushing grammar to the back of the bus in our writing. I for one, attribute much of my ability at critical thinking to that laborious process (which I hated at the time) known as diagramming sentences. Grammar cannot be completely separated from writing just as the peanut butter and the jelly cannot be removed from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But when making one of these tasty treats, no one in their right mind wishes the end to be the peanut butter or the jelly. Otherwise we would simply eat the ingredients separately. As this example is perhaps a metaphor of simplistic writing, so the metaphor becomes more complex when our writing attempts to be more complex. Far easier to make a PB & J than a lasagna, yet we would still not want to eat all those ingredients individually.

Now, one way to learn how to best make a lasagna is to watch someone else make the lasagna. The more we do this, the more we get a handle on how to make the lasagna: what quirks work best, when to add certain ingredients, what types of ingredients give the best tastes, when to deviate from the recipe, etc. As we internally record this, we then eventually reach the moment when we make our own lasagna; we imitate. But imitation is not merely a robotic rehashing of what was just done. Every imitation includes an individuality. When I do a poor imitation of a friend, I remain myself very much so, and he would certainly agree. When I attempt to imitate some of my favorite writers (i.e. Lewis, Chesterton, Dickens), I cannot help but implement my own quirkiness into the writing, and it would be a disservice to them to state otherwise.

But I would have never reached any sort of level had I not begun by reading. You cannot reach a destination without a map, and you cannot possibly describe that destination accurately until you are firmly acquainted with it. It is far easier to write about your home than a foreign land, and if our reading is limited so will be our writing. That is not to say, of course, that if we never move past Dr. Seuss, we will go on rhyming continually. (That would be a benefit.) It is to say that we can never attain Shakespeare if we never read Shakespeare.

Eventually, grammar is important. It displays how well we grasp our language, and if we constantly devalue grammar, the language will fall apart. It needs structure. But with this said, writing is far more than grammar. It is imagination. Writing is the curious way in which small people with little voices become big people with big voices. It is the means by which we can evaluate our own thought processes. I would, then, encourage any writer to find three or four readers they thoroughly enjoy and imitate the dickens out of them. But don’t stop there. Continue to venture into the deeper, tougher readings. What you will find is that the more acquainted you become with them, the less intimidating their language actually is. You may even find yourself obnoxiously quoting them a time or two.


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