Imitation in Rhetoric and Composition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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"Through others," said L. S. Vygotsky, "we become ourselves" (Paedology of the Adolescent, 1931).

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In rhetoric and composition, imitation is an exercise in which students read, copy, analyze, and paraphrase the text of a major author. The term is also known (in Latin) as "imitatio." "It is a universal rule of life that we should wish to copy what we approve in others," Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, a first-century Roman educator, wrote many centuries ago. Since that time—and throughout the millennia—imitation has often been the sincerest form of flattery, as the following thoughts from writers and thinkers demonstrate.

Don't Hesitate to Imitate

Imitation is not at all the same as plagiarism, which is defined as means claiming someone else's work is your own by putting it in your story without attribution or credit. With imitation, you are using an admired author as a guide, not rewriting their work verbatim (or close) and claiming it as your own.

Finding a Voice

"Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft...Find the best writers in the field that interests you and read their work aloud. Get their voice and their taste into your ear—their attitude toward language. Don't worry that by imitating them you'll lose your own voice and your own identity. Soon enough you will shed those skins and become who you are supposed to become." — William Zinsser, "On Writing Well." Collins, 2006.

Here, you can see how Zinnser explains that as a writer practicing imitation, you are trying to find a voice by looking at the tone of authors you admire—not copying their words. It's a little like admiring a sports star and imitating the essence of what they do, such as NFL star Tom Brady, a multi-time Super Bowl and MVP winner known for his work ethic, devotion to studying the game, and passion for his sport, or NBA star Michael Jordan, known for his win-at-all costs attitude and his passion for basketball and his teammates. In the same way, as a writer, you are seeking to imitate what the writers you admire convey and what they bring to their craft.

Binding to Writers

"The writers we absorb when we're young bind us to them, sometimes lightly, sometimes with iron. In time, the bonds fall away, but if you look very closely you can sometimes make out the pale white groove of a faded scar, or the telltale chalky red of old rust." — Daniel Mendelsohn, "The American Boy." The New Yorker January 7, 2013.

Here, Mendelsohn explains how you, as a writer, imitate an author by "binding" to the way they explain things, the way they approach their writing, and even their passion for their craft. As time goes on, and you grow more confident in your writing, the signs of this binding—of this imitation—fade, but the signs of that binding are always present, however slightly, like "the white groove of a faded scar."

Red Smith on Imitation

Indeed, sports is a great analogy to imitation in writing.

Imitating Others

"When I was very young as a sportswriter I knowingly and unashamedly imitated others. I had a series of heroes who would delight me for a while....Damon Runyon, Westbrook Pegler, Joe Williams....

"I think you pick up something from this guy and something from that...I deliberately imitated those three guys, one by one, never together. I'd read one daily, faithfully, and be delighted by him and imitate him. Then someone else would catch my fancy. That's a shameful admission. But slowly, by what process I have no idea, your own writing tends to crystallize, to take shape. Yet you have learned some moves from all these guys and they are somehow incorporated into your own style. Pretty soon you're not imitating any longer." — Red Smith, in "No Cheering in the Press Box," ed. by Jerome Holtzman, 1974

Smith was indeed a famed sportswriter who, himself, influenced generations of other sportswriters who followed him and imitated him. Yet, Smith also shows how imitation is like trying on a pair of shoes, seeing how they feel when you walk a mile in them, discarding them, and trying on others until you find your own voice.

Imitation in Classical Rhetoric

Imitation was a vital part of the development of human knowledge and style.

Renaissance Imitation

"The three processes by which a classical or medieval or Renaissance man acquired his knowledge of rhetoric or anything else were traditionally 'Art, Imitation, Exercise' (Ad Herennium, I.2.3). The 'art' is here represented by the whole system of rhetoric, so carefully memorized; 'Exercise' by such schemes as the theme, the declamation or the progymnasmata. The hinge between the two poles of study and personal creation is the imitation of the best extant models, by means of which the pupil corrects faults and learns to develop his own voice." — Brian Vickers, "Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry." Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.

No knowledge (and writing) is completely new; it builds on the knowledge, style, and writing that came before. Here you can see how Vickers explains that even Renaissance rhetoric—which Merriam-Webster defines as "the art of using words"—hinged on how writers practiced imitation, borrowing liberally from their predecessors.

Imitation in Roman Rhetoric

As far back as Roman times, writers practiced imitation in rhetoric.

A Series of Steps

"The genius of Roman rhetoric resides in the use of imitation throughout the school course to create sensitivity to language and versatility in its use....Imitation, for the Romans, was not copying and not simply using the language structures of others. On the contrary, imitation involved a series of steps...

"At the outset, a written text was read aloud by a teacher of rhetoric....Next, a phase of analysis was used. The teacher would take the text apart in minute detail. The structure, word choice, grammar, rhetorical strategy, phrasing, elegance, and so forth, would be explained, described, and illustrated for the students....

"Next, students were required to memorize good models....

"Students were then expected to paraphrase models....

"Then students recast the ideas in the text under consideration....This recasting involved both writing as well as speaking." — Donovan J. Ochs, "Imitation." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, ed. by Theresa Enos. Taylor & Francis, 1996

Ochs specifically says that imitation is not copying (as noted previously). As far back as Roman times, imitation was a step in the learning process. It represented a systematic approach to helping students find their own inner voice.

Imitation and Originality

Ultimately, the key to imitation—and what sets it apart from plagiarism—is its emphasis on helping new writers and speakers achieve originality in their own works. A student might start out by, literally, copying the work of an "admired author," but this was only part of the process of helping them to find their own, original voice.

Finding Originality

"All of these [ancient rhetorical] exercises required students to copy the work of some admired author or to elaborate on a set theme. Ancient dependence upon material composed by others may seem strange to modern students, who have been taught that their work should be original. But ancient teachers and students would have found the notion of originality quite strange; they assumed that real skill lay in being able to imitate or to improve on something written by others." — Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, "Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students." Pearson, 2004.

Here Crowley emphasizes perhaps the key point of imitation: "[R]eal skill lay in being able to imitate or to improve on something written by others." She notes how ancient teachers would have found the idea of creating original prose from scratch to be a strange concept. As sportswriter Smith showed in his stellar work during the course of his career (and explained in the previous quote), imitation is a way of observing what others who have come before write, and how they write, in order to improve on what they have created and find your own inner voice in the process. Finding originality, you might say, is actually the sincerest form of imitation.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Imitation in Rhetoric and Composition." ThoughtCo, Mar. 24, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, March 24). Imitation in Rhetoric and Composition. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Imitation in Rhetoric and Composition." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 21, 2021).