The sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and it’s a great way to learn how to write better, too, long as you bring originality to the process.
Once upon a time, there was an annual writing contest called
the International Imitation Hemingway Competition, also known as the Bad
Hemingway Contest, where writers could submit a “really good page of really bad
Hemingway” in the clipped, minimalist style of the Nobel laureate. There were
only two rules for the competition: Entrants had to mention Harry's Bar &
Grill, one of Hemingway's favorite haunts, and their stories had to be funny.
for competition or practice, the savvy writer might go a step further and try out
Hemingway’s iceberg theory, which he learned in journalism and retained in
writing fiction, where a story’s meaning has greater impact when buried under
the surface of the work, with just enough significance visible above the waterline
to point to more beneath. Practicing this approach helps writers sharpen and
condense their prose toward a subtler and stronger overall impression on the
reader. The next step then is for writers to discover and use their unique voice in conveying the stories and topics that excite them most.
Several years ago, I attended a Connecticut
Authors & Publisher’s Association Writers Conference and had lunch with
four longtime literary agents who represented both fiction and nonfiction. As they
began talking among themselves, I became a fly on the wall, listening as they
described the challenges of sifting through hundreds of queries a day. Yet, what
the agents lamented most was less the work of responding to email and more the
dearth of fresh ideas—for novels and nonfiction. No one bemoaned writers using classic
themes for their stories or popular nonfiction topics for their books but that comparatively
few writers took the time to develop these ideas using fresh perspectives.
classic novella employed innovatively for film was Joseph Conrad's 1899 Heart of Darkness as inspiration for the
1979 epic film Apocalypse Now, on the
Vietnam War. Even with a different setting and era than the original work, Apocalypse presented both a familiar
archetype and an original story, on the complexities and human cost of war. While
there’s nothing new under the sun, you can bring your original take to an old
As an exercise in originality and intentionality, you might choose a
favorite story, song or film and craft a paragraph describing how you would
“remake” the work in your style, from your viewpoint. You can use the ideas of
others by imitation; just make sure to give them your unique spin.