What comes to mind when you hear the word “imitation” in the context of writing? Do you think of plagiarism? Lack of creativity? What if instead you thought of creating by imitating as a way to avoid reinventing the wheel? Using good structures that others have polished just makes your own creativity go even further. This is an extension of the idea of Sit Experiment 1, in which I suggested reading widely and intentionally to get ideas for writing. You can go even further and use models of writing you admire as jumping off points for your own creativity.
I Am Not Alone in Recommending Creating by Imitating
I’m not alone believing in the power of imitation. Angela Duckworth, who writes one of the very few columns that I never skip reading, even though it arrives on Sunday morning, had a recent article entitled Imitation is Inspiration. She said,
“But it turns out that a great deal of human learning is imitation. We were all born to copy-paste.”
Creating by Imitating Saved the Day for Me
I am on a mailing list for the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), so I received many emails inviting me to submit an abstract for a topic I could present at their summer 2023 conference. When I looked at their requests, I thought, “I don’t have time to figure this out.”
One day, I received a draft IPPA abstract written by Lisa Sansom, someone whose work I admire. She was sending it to my writers’ workshop for review before submitting it to IPPA. As I read it, I thought, “This isn’t so hard. I could do one of these.” Since she was once co-chair of the review committee for practice submissions to IPPA, I figured she knew what she was doing. I didn’t have to learn to navigate the submission process by myself.
To follow her lead, I pulled up her submission in one window of my computer, copied the text and pasted it into a blank document on the other screen, and started editing. The abstract gradually morphed into my content.
The abstract format provided by IPPA included section headers for Background, Aims, Methods, Results, and Conclusions. Whenever I got stuck, I’d look again at her original to see how she handled a particular topic. Her example helped me figure out the appropriate level of detail for each section. Where I might have been intimidated by trying to describe Methods or Results, I could see that she wasn’t writing in academic research terms. She was interpreting these topic headers broadly to highlight her practical, non-academic work. I could do that. As a result, I was able to pull together a reasonable submission without spending a lot of time worrying about what IPPA wanted.
Will my abstract be accepted? Who knows, given that they receive many times more submissions than they have speaking slots. But if I hadn’t submitted at all, there would have been zero chance of acceptance.
Creating by Imitating Can Smooth the Way
When you are doing something that other people have done before, don’t start with a blank piece of paper. Start with an example. That reduces the need to spend your creativity on problems that others have already solved. If you let others show the way, you can spend your creativity adapting it to your specific needs.
Are you filling out a resume or job application? Look for examples provided by recruiters and career coaches. They can help you figure out the right level of detail, understand what an Objectives statement is supposed to do, and remember what to put in each section. I remember thinking when I looked at someone else’s resume, “Oh! They might be interested in my award for mentoring.”
Need to update your LinkedIn profile? Look for examples that you think are impressive. For example, I learned to express my summary in terms of problems that readers want solved, rather than trying to puff myself up.
When writing an academic paper, find one or more similar papers that seem clearly expressed and straightforward. There may be examples of graphs or tables that show you how to present your own data. There may be ideas for introducing the topic, writing an effective abstract, or presenting results that you can emulate.
When writing a book, look at the way other books are organized. Is there something about the way they divide the topic into parts and chapters that might suggest a way you could proceed from beginning to end? Do you like the length and content of the introductory matter? Do you like the way they start major sections, use headers, or separate out certain kinds of information?
Do’s and Don’t’s of Respectful Imitation
- Do pick a high-quality model. In my IPPA story, my model was created by someone who has had 4 submissions accepted by IPPA committees. I figured she knew what she was doing.
- Do make sure that you make it completely your own. Imitating is good, plagiarism is not.
- Do consider your own earlier work as sources of possible models. You may have figured out how to do this before. Refresh your memory by reviewing your own contributions.
- Don’t fail to update your own work to make something new. At least in the realm of academic papers, it is possible to get in trouble for plagiarizing yourself.
- Don’t put your name on someone else’s work, even unintentionally.
- Don’t leave little bits of the other person’s document embedded in yours. In my recent experience, the model author had included a statement way down the last page that accidentally ended up in the first draft of my document because I just didn’t see it. When I workshopped my abstract, my reviewers found her side comment about her job truly startling because it wasn’t true of me.
- Do seize opportunities to go beyond the model and perhaps make the structure even better.
- Do thank the person, if possible, whose contribution gave you a head start.
- Do be willing for your own work to serve as a model for others.
Marshal your creativity to solve new problems, not ones that other people have already solved. Life is not a grade school class where you have to do your own work from scratch. As you approach a new challenge, look for models where others have already addressed the problem you need to solve. If you can use their work as a starting point, you can make your own creativity go further.