“As much as we might admire what is fresh and innovative, we all learn by imitating patterns,” writes Irina Dumitrescu in The Times Literary Supplement. “To be called ‘formulaic’ is no compliment, but whenever people express themselves or take action in the world, they rely on familiar formulas.” It’s true. For her review-essay, Dumitrescu reads 5 books about writing and explores how writing advice is caught in a paradox: to get people to communicate clearly, logically, and find their own voices, instruction must first teach them rules and provide enough room to learn by copying. This is why most of us writers begin by imitating established writers. We find someone whose style or subject reflects our own – someone in whom we hear our ideal selves, someone who sounds like we want to sound one day – and we mimic them. This could start with a parent, move to a cool friend, then end with a famous novelist or memoirst, before we emerge from the pupae of literary infancy. In other words, to facilitate originality, we must teach formula, encourage imitation, and push for eventual independence. She explores the value of craft, structure, exploration, and formula, and the way sticking to rules erodes a writer’s style, their character, even the essence of the art. She contrasts John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities with the book Writing to Persuade, by The New York Times‘ previous op-ed editor, Trish Hall.
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