Who do you write like? Or even, like whom do you write?

When we start writing, we often do so in a more or less conscious imitation of a writer we admire. For some of us it’s because we’ve read everything that writer has written (and if they’ve died, everything that will be published by them) and we want more, so our only option is to try and produce a simulacrum of their work with our own imaginations. That’s what slash/fan fic came out of: the boiling desire to have more of something that had ended or migrated to a new place. Some Star Trek fans want only Spock and Kirk, no other captain and first officer will do, so they write (and act out, and film) their own episodes. Some Dickens fans must know what the Mystery was that Edwin Drood was to be the hero of, had Dickens not died after episode six of the eponymous twelve-part story, so they write the second half themselves.

And many of us move on. From slavish imitation we move to unconscious imitation. More of ‘us’ gets through, but more of other influences does too. Sometimes this looks like maturity, but it is still a stage of groping after our own voice, our own vision, even our own map of the world we want to write about. We’re grabbing at bits of other maps, fragments of other pictures, echoes of other voices because we admire them and want to take those directions ourselves.

The final stage comes when you leave all those other voices, visions and maps behind and move into a territory that is purely your own. What makes this part frustrating is that it becomes much more difficult to talk about, and less robust than either of the other two stages. If you’ve been channelling Reginald Hill or E M Forster, you have a sense of where to start and finish. When there’s only you to set the direction, work fades into a grey mist in the impossible future of ‘the end’ and you have no idea how to get there or even which way to start travelling.

That’s where a long-established writer’s group can be so useful. Even if they don’t know your territory, they know you, and that allows them to support, critique, observe and challenge your writing, even when you yourself can’t find the words to encapsulate your novel or describe your play in progress. And in holding you to account on a regular basis, they can stop you getting lost in uncharted territory.

It doesn’t have to be a physical group, although that can be good. My online writing groups have been the greatest support I’ve had, and I still always run my work by one particular writer (she knows who she is) because she’s my toughest critic and the person who most ‘gets’ my writing – sometimes she gets it even when I don’t!


  1. Jim Murdoch
    22nd February 2009

    I used to love that bit in Face the Music growing up where Joseph Cooper would play a familiar tune, say ‘Three Blind Mice’ in the style of Rachmaninov – I got that one – but I’ve never been very good in writing in the style of anyone other than myself. Essentially, certainly for the first two books, I wrote the way I talked and it’s only when I came to market the novel I sort of looked around to see how I could describe the thing. I came up with a cross between Douglas Adams and Kafke and okay I had read Kafka but at the time of writing I hadn’t read any Adams. I think part of the reason I never fell into mimicking any one style is that I read such different stuff. It could be Camus one week and Asimov the next. And don’t forget all the comics too.

    I have to confess there can be a touch of Alan Bennett to one or two of my short stories.

  2. jem
    25th February 2009

    Coming to you via a recent link on ‘Ink Haven’ – although I’m sure I’ve passed by before.

    Thoughtful post. I think the notion of finding your writing voice is fascinating. And I’m always wondering if I’m there yet. In some ways it reminds me of my handwriting, for years and years it changed, depending on the school friends or the paper and pen. For a good few years now it’s been quite stable and recognisably mine.

    But I wonder if my voice is there yet. I’m not sure who I’ve mimicked, but I don’t tend to worship any particular authors. But perhaps I’m fallen for sometimes writing a version of myself that I want to be (if that makes any sense).

    Mmmm, great. Lots to think about, and again the inkling that I need to get involved in a writing group.

  3. Kay Sexton
    26th February 2009

    Mmm, I think I’d have come up with Douglas Adams for you too, Jim. Not so sure about Kafka though – he could be very … precious, shall I say, and there’s nothing precious about your writing. Douglas Adams crossed with Ray Bradbury – how’s that?

    And Jem, my handwriting changes too! I have one style for fiction and another for everything else I do. It makes me look like two different people! The right writing group can be very helpful, but they aren’t always easy to locate.


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