Copying the masters

One of the things I think we do poorly in teaching young people to write is that we either teach it as a mode of self-expression, in which anything goes as long as it’s authentic… or as a mode of linguistic science, a series of parts of speech and moods and tenses and rules with nothing of interest to apply the rules to.

I think there’s a middle ground. It’s called reading.

Specifically, a guided, structured reading in which we learn to copy the masters, a sort of Beaux-Arts approach to writing in which we discover the writers we really love and then put their words through our hands. One of my practices for years when I was teaching myself to write was actually typing the most beautiful paragraphs or sequences I encountered. I got to feel those ideas coming through my hands; the fact of typing made me consider the author’s decisions, and how those were different than my own habits; I just got used to managing language beautifully and elegantly.

How do you learn how to write a CV? By reading them. How do you learn to write an abstract? By reading them. How do you learn the genre you want to participate in, from computational chemistry journal to literary short story to NIH grant proposal? By reading them. And intuiting their rules, and making those rules your own.