On Writing Well: How to Handle Literary Influences

As aspiring writers, we all wish that we could write like the literary giants, many of whom we have admired for most of our lives. Yet, when it comes down to starting work of our own, we are often uncertain of how to handle these influences of the literary heroes whose work we have read and reread so many times, and who cast such a long shadow over our writing lives.

What would be the best way to handle these wonderful influences? How can we ward off the sense of our own failure when we compare our own writing to that of Emily Dickinson, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald? How can we be influenced, but not plagiarize the work of those we admire?

These are my top tips:

Be flattered if your writing style reflects your idol’s: Many authors complain that because they read and re-read the same author so many times, they begin to notice that their own writing begins to mimic the tone and cadences of the writer they admire. They say this as if it’s a problem. When I hear them, I always wonder whether they can possibly be serious. Have your writing style be close to Austen’s, or T.S Eliot’s, or Salman Rushdie’s? This is a problem? Surely, they joke, right? So, writers if your constant re-reading leads to an evolution of your writing style, please be delighted. Writers pay much money in MFA programs to get to this stage!

Be worried if you’ve been copying entire sentences: Being influenced is not a good excuse for plagiarism. It does not matter whether you read that same piece one thousand times, if you copy an entire sentence into your text, you will get into an incredible amount of trouble. Just ask Kavya Viswanathan. Not only did her book get revoked, her contract for her next book was cancelled. But you know what the real tragedy is? The plagiarized sections were actually the poorest part of her book.  It was her original writing and the unique characterizations that made Opal Mehta such an exciting book. Yet, because of her mistakes, intentional or otherwise, it is very unlikely that Kavya will get a legitimate second chance into the literary world.

Don’t despair if you fall short: When you read the writings of a writer you admire, whether it is Ernest Hemingway or William Shakespeare, your own writing will seem laughable in comparison. Do not despair! Be influenced by great authors’ writing, but not paralyzed by their talent. After all, who knows, perhaps you will be the next Steinbeck or Faulkner.

Photo (Ernest Hemmingway) via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain]

4 thoughts on “On Writing Well: How to Handle Literary Influences

  1. When I started writing, I was so much impressed by Stefan Zewig that I tried to emulate his advice. He said those who want to write must first try to translate the works by their favorite authors and then move into rewriting their work. For a novice this helped a lot. But then when I began thinking myself as a writer I tried to develop my style and voice. Thank god I did not send those stories to the publications.

    Pia, I have always been a fan of this On Writing Well series. Thanks for this great advice.

  2. Thanks for this encouraging post . It’s probably best to not judge yourself to harshly and just allow yourself to develop as a writer.

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