Monday, June 7, 2010

Don't Try to Be Someone Else

Are you a writer? I bet you got into this whole thing because you read. Even if you started writing when you were a kid, there was someone, some author whose work you read where you thought,


Maybe you wished you could do something like that. Or, like me, maybe you didn't think about the writing at the time, but wished you could be inside the story, to have it happen to you. But either way, I think when we start writing, most of us have people we'd like to emulate. And the further we go, the more we discover other writers and their great works, and we say to ourselves,

"I wish I could write like that."

It's good to have role models, even idols. It's wonderful to admire, to read and analyze, to try to achieve something you've seen in an author you love.

There's an in-between space, though, that you should watch out for. When you start being a member of a writing field, you see people in all different places along a career trajectory (and those career trajectories take very different forms). Sometimes you see people who are "ahead" of you. Be careful.

Don't envy them, and don't ever try to become them.

There are huge risks in this. The most obvious one I can think of is that if you let envy make you get ugly, the people around you won't want to help you any more. The other gigantic one is that if you try to be someone else, you will probably fail.

Writing is very individual. Your voice as a writer is the combined echo of every piece of language you've ever heard, filtered through your judgments and values. Your writing is unique. If you try to imitate, very likely you'll end up disconnecting yourself from the Muse you need to follow.

Don't fall into the assumption that you are in competition with other writers. You're not. That thing you can do is unlike anything anyone else does, for one thing. If you can do it and stand out unlike the anyone else, you can achieve success. If on the other hand your writing evokes the work of another great writer, well, you can share their market. I can't think of any reader who owns only one book! I can't think of any reader who would hear that someone's writing resembled one of their favorites and decide without a single glance that it had to be horrible and derivative. And after all, wasn't emulating the greats one of the things that got you into writing in the first place?

I can't say this enough times: don't belittle the unique background and experiences that contribute to your voice. Be true to yourself and your vision. If you can do that, and keep working hard to improve your craft, you are far more likely to make it. And if you keep working, and reaching out to the people around you, one day you may find yourself having a friendly chat with the very author you've always admired - while somewhere out there new writers look at your work and say,

"I wish I could write like that."


  1. Well said. As an aspiring writer, there are a few authors "I wish I could be like." But then I would just be copycatting them, wouldn't I? One of the hardest parts I'm finding for myself is to find 'my voice' as a writer. It's good to have role models to inspire you, but I know for me personally, I need to be myself who ever that turns out to be.

  2. Hi, Ellie. Thanks for your comment. Part of the reason I wrote this was to remind myself of my own principles in this area. Sometimes it's hard not to stress over others' accomplishments, and just be proud of one's own.

  3. There are a number of authors whose work influence mine, and I try very hard to keep it at "influence" rather than "imitation".
    I'd be extremely flattered if someone told me that my work reminds them of Orson Scott Card, Fred Saberhagen, Piers Anthony, Stephen R. Donaldson, etc...
    But hopefully there will be enough "me" in my stories for them to stand on their own, with their own voices.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  4. You're welcome, Brad. Thank *you*!

  5. Envy is an insidious little weed. (I've got a couple varieties I contend with most often.) But to attract positive energy, one must be positive. People flock to the cheerful. Which means weeding out envy every time it pokes up. Since envy isn't even as pretty as dandelions, we must be even more vigilant to keep it from getting deeply rooted.

    It's very hard to remember I'm not competing with my fellow writers. Not for speed, and certainly not for style. We're all different, and if I tried to be something I'm not, the few dedicated readers I have would drift from me. I can't let them or any future readers down, especially not when an author I admire has me in her "Other Cool Blogs" listing. (I choked up the first time I noticed. Still feels good.) Don't want to let her down either.

  6. Thanks for your post, Juliette.
    Wonderful advice.

    I find that sometimes there is a twinge of jealousy. Like, what have they got that I do not, when they are selling [fill in the blank] at such a clip, and I am not?
    But actually, most of those authors are far more skilled and talented that I. It may take me five times longer, but I'll make some major sales as well.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Jaleh. I agree that envy is insidious - I have to keep reminding myself not to bother with it.

    Paul, thanks for the comment. I do have thoughts like those, sometimes. It's hard not to; but you don't even have to think of it in terms of skill or talent. I imagine that many people have a lot more writing time than I do, and they write some better stories and some worse, but they have a higher overall volume and I'm seeing the best of those.

  8. Unless your name is Ted Chiang, that is true. :-)

  9. Yes, agree with the points you have made. Trying to write or be like some-one else is difficult if not impossible. It's your voice that will resonate the strongest regardless of your level of skill in writing. So why not start off with your strength of being a unique voice i.e. be yourself.

  10. Thanks for your comment, Chris! Unique voice is so important these days; I agree. Stop by again sometime...

  11. Hi Juliette:

    Thanks so much for this post! There are authors I love, and while I enjoy learning and studying what makes them so great in my opinion, I really needed your post. It's something I need to remember as I work to uncover my own voice. That's a bit of a situation where 'the lines keep moving' actually, but I know it will happen.

    I hope it's ok to add a link to your article to my site.

    Again, thanks!


  12. Susan,
    Thanks for your comment! I'm so glad you liked this post - thanks also for the link.

  13. Thanks for an interesting read. One's unique individuality is so important.
    Each time I want to change something in my writing, I shall ask myself." Is that really me?"

  14. Thank you for your comment, Prem Rao. I'm glad it spoke to you.