Imitation in Rhetoric and Composition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

father and son with laptops
"Through others," said L. S. Vygotsky, "we become ourselves" (Paedology of the Adolescent, 1931).

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In rhetoric and composition, students exercise imitation when they 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.

Definition

Imitation is not the same as plagiarism, which means claiming someone else's work as your own by putting it in your writing without attribution or credit. With imitation, you are drawing inspiration from an admired author, not rewriting their work and calling it yours.

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, Zinnser explains that writers practice imitation by studying the voice of authors they admire, not copying their words. No less a literary luminary than the late American novelist and Nobel Prize laureate Ernest Hemingway has practiced imitation—not only in voice and tone but even in story content. According to a 2019 article by Dalya Alberge in The Guardian:

"New research shows that the themes and style in the writing of Enrique Serpa, a little-known Cuban author, find an echo in the works of Ernest Hemingway, who wrote some of his most notable books while in Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s. U.S. academic Professor Andrew Feldman said there were strong parallels between Serpa’s stories and later works of Hemingway, including To Have and Have Not and The Old Man and the Sea. Although 'not a plagiarism situation,' the stories were 'incredibly similar, a striking resemblance in terms of themes and style.'"

In turn, Hemingway's unique style and voice have influenced generations of writers, who are drawn to his work and become bound to it.

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 or imitation fade.

Red Smith on Imitation

Sports is a great analogy for imitation in writing. Writer Red Smith explains how his writing inspirations shaped his style until he developed his own.

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 himself was a famed sportswriter who influenced countless sportswriters to follow. They imitated him, and he imitated those before him. Smith shows how imitation is like trying on a pair of shoes, seeing how they feel after walking in them, discarding them, and trying on others until you find your own pair—the shoes in this example represent one's 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 (or writing) is completely new; it builds on the knowledge, style, and writing that came before. 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 reiterates that imitation is not copying. 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 voices.

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 copying the work of an "admired author," but this was only part of the process of helping them grow as writers.

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 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 work during the course of his career, 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, May. 24, 2021, thoughtco.com/imitation-rhetoric-and-composition-1691150. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, May 24). Imitation in Rhetoric and Composition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/imitation-rhetoric-and-composition-1691150 Nordquist, Richard. "Imitation in Rhetoric and Composition." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/imitation-rhetoric-and-composition-1691150 (accessed October 18, 2021).