On Copying and Imitation as Practice, Not Plagiarism

by Marisa PC

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Every semester, as I teach scene-writing, I dedicate a class or two to dialogue. The content and pacing of dialogue are themselves worthy of discussion, but they are not my subject today. Instead, I notice that in at least half the cases, my students have difficulty punctuating dialogue correctly and sometimes struggle to paragraph it as well. Each time I teach it, I reflect on why these technical particularities come so easily to me. I’m detail-oriented, sure, and blessed with an undying love of grammar and mechanics. However, I’m also aware that no one—no teacher in a classroom, I mean—took time to teach me the hows and whys of dialogue punctuation. I’ve decided I learned how to do it through the practice of imitation.

In high school, I was already full of original stories to tell, but sometimes when another author’s work inspired me, I would rewrite it. I would copy in longhand whatever words had caught my attention, because I wanted to experience what it felt like to have such amazing words unspool from my pen. In no way was my copying an act of plagiarism. It was, rather, an act of homage—and of apprenticeship. I kept whole notebooks of song lyrics and passages from poetry and prose that moved me. Once, I even copied an entire novel but changed the point-of-view character to the one I preferred. Quite possibly, my long, attentive copying sessions led me to learn dialogue punctuation. I’m fairly sure it led me to learn other things about writing, too.

Among the creative writing textbooks in my possession is one by Nicholas Delbanco called The Sincerest Form: Writing Fiction by Imitation. I haven’t used it with any of my classes, but I find it an intriguing approach. Delbanco introduces each chapter with a short story—Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” among them—and follows with a step-by-step analysis of each, along with ten exercises promoting imitation of the story. The exercises for O’Connor’s story, for example, include incorporating dialect to write a scene between two characters discussing the Grandmother, writing five different endings, and expanding the relatively small role of the mother. An anthology of other stories and exercises follows.

Perhaps you have objected, as so many do, to the notion of imitation as a vehicle toward learning. You have your own style, your own stories, your own original you-ness of writing. I get that, I do, but Delbanco makes a strong case for such practice, pointing out how often we learn by example in other ways. We learn to walk and talk by example, he points out. Actors study other people’s actions and intonations; artists in their apprenticeship attempt to reproduce what they see. Delbanco goes on. And I’ll join him in promoting imitation as a fair practice.

Today I invite you to copy several pages of a story, essay, or book you admire or several poems by a poet whose work inspires you. Use longhand, and feel the words. If you want to take the exercise further, try writing a short original passage or poem of your own that follows the structure and mechanics of the admired piece. See whether you can develop a sense of how the author or poet of the piece you’re imitating made each decision—from word choice and sentence structure to development of character or theme. And if punctuating and paragraphing dialogue gives you fits, by all means, copy a long, effective passage of someone else’s and take note of what the author is doing!

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In regard to the photo: Felix LaFollett is an African gray parrot who has his own Facebook page and is trainer to the people with whom he lives. As many of you know, I live with three parrots, and though they often repeat words, phrases, and noises, they are never merely imitating. Their gift of clear communication is one we humans should learn from and hope to emulate.

8 thoughts on “On Copying and Imitation as Practice, Not Plagiarism

  1. Teaching dialogue punctuation (and its close relative, research quotation punctuation) is tough. I’ll sometimes start a fictional scenario (“You enter an elevator at work and find yourself alone with . . .”) and have the class imagine a brief exchange, which I’ll trancribe on the board/overhead for them to see. But it’s never enough–the various conventions could take a full week.

    Love the exercise at the end of the post–will be doing it.

  2. Glad to hear you’ll be giving the exercise a try.

    Sometimes in teaching dialogue, I talk about transitive and intransitive verbs, speech verbs, and complete and incomplete sentences. Naturally, I talk about upper- and lowercase letters, commas and periods and exclamation points and question marks. My emphasis on grammar and usage, however, tends to act as a coagulant to the students’ creative juices–or at least that’s how I interpret the look on many of their faces.

    Lisa came up with the idea of having students work in groups to write bad dialogue, bad in all the ways, and transcribe the ill-written mini-scenes and then discuss the errors and overall badness. I’ve tried it only twice, and I must say it has a positive impact.

  3. Oh, I love this and I hate this! Ha! I love it because I love imagining you copying books by hand and because I love the emphasis on imitation as a way of learning. I also love the exercise at the end. In fact, yesterday, when I was stuck, Randi gave me the same exercise! And it had such positive results! (Mine was to imitate a scene that did something I wanted to do nore of in my work. I used this exercise at a place where I felt stuck because the scene was feeling flat)…which is also why I hate this! I was so going to offer the same advice tomorrow! Ha! Guess tis the season for the sincerest form of flattery!

    • Go on then! Offer the same advice! It will be a sort of meta-post. Or something. I’ve been thinking about trying my hand at poetry again, because I’ve so enjoyed reading it these past four months, but the only way I can see having any success is to start this way, get a feel for it again.

    • Hey, don’t know if I saw this here or somewhere else on social media, but a quote that’s stuck with me goes something like this: Everything has already been said, but it hasn’t all been said by you.

      • Ha! You know what is funny? I’ve been having weird, “Did I say that already?” moments with trying to write posts this year. So maybe everything has already been said, and it has been said by you, but no one will remember!

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