You often hear that you need to find your own voice and style to be “original.” Surprisingly, the best way to do that is to “copy and imitate.”
You might think, “Isn’t that plagiarism?” Of course, you can’t copy and paste someone else’s work and claim it’s yours. But copying and imitating other people’s work helps you find your own style.
👣 We Grew Up by Copying
We all learned to walk, talk, and behave by observing and imitating our parents, older siblings, and other people around us.
📚 Steal Like an Artist: All Artists Steal and Copy!
In his book, “Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Told You About Being Creative,” Austin Kleon says, “Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are.” “We learn by copying.”
🧠 Become a Deliberate Copy-and-Paster
In her book, “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be,” Katy Milkman says one of the ways to make changes in life is to become a deliberate copy-and-paster.
You find a person who’s achieved a goal you want. Observe the person, find their strategies, and copy and paste them deliberately.
You can use the same tactic to acquire skills and develop your own style.
💃 Twyla Tharp, Choreographer, and Dancer on Muscle Memory
Twyla Tharp is one of the greatest American choreographers and dancers.
In her book, “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life,” she says, “When I started out as a dancer in New York, I became obsessed with studying every great dancer who was working at the time and patterning myself after him or her. I would literally stand behind them in class, in copying mode, and fall right into their footsteps. Their technique, style, and timing imprinted themselves on my muscles.”
By copying, you imprint the skill, which becomes a part of your muscle memory. Tharp says, “Traveling the paths of greatness, even in someone else’s footprints, is a vital means to acquiring skill.”
📖 How Benjamin Franklin Learned to Be a Great Writer
Founding father Benjamin Franklin was a great inventor. He invented many things, such as the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove. But the best invention he made was himself.
Franklin was one of the few American founding fathers who didn’t go to college. But he taught himself many skills and continued to reinvent himself throughout his life. He was a true lifelong learner. Writing was one of the skills he taught himself. Throughout his life, he referred to himself as “B. Franklin, printer.”
In his book, “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,” Walter Issacson explains how Franklin taught himself to be a good writer.
Franklin first read essays by other writers. He took brief notes. He then set aside the notes for a few days. Next, he tried to recreate the essay using his own words. After that, he compared his version with the original.
He used deliberate copying practice. He invented ways to teach himself how good writing works and improve his own prose. Through the process, he developed his own style as a writer and became a popular writer of the colonial era.
🖋️ On Writing Well by William Zinsser
In his book, “On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction,” William Zinsser, a lifelong journalist and nonfiction writer, says, “Writing is learned by imitation. If anyone asked me how I learned to write, I’d say I learned by reading the men and women who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and trying to figure out how they did it.”
He tells readers not to hesitate to imitate other writers. To learn an art or a craft, you need a model. Just like painters and musicians need models, you need a model to become a writer.
Zinsser advises, “Find the best writers in the fields that interest you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear—their attitude toward language.”
You might worry that you will become the writer you’re imitating. But Zinsser tells you not to worry about that. He says, “Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become.”
🎵 Learn by Copying and Develop Your Style
You might enjoy listening to music. But you won’t become a musician by just listening to it.
Anyone who learns to play the piano spends many hours practicing pieces of music written by great piano composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Haydn. All these great composers also learned by playing the music of others first.
You might like to go to art museums. But you don’t become a painter by spending hours there. Those great painters learned the skills by copying and imitating other artists as well. You can see that through these quotes by famous artists such as Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí.
“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso
“Those who don’t want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” – Salvador Dalí
No matter what you want to be good at, first copy and imitate the people who’ve acquired the skills you want. That’s the quickest way to develop your own voice and style.
🚀 Do This Now
Find your models: people you admire or art you love. Get busy copying. Make copying a part of your daily routine. In the process, you will develop your own style and find your voice!