Trying to Figure Out How They Did It

We all need models, whatever art or craft we're trying to learn. Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model; they didn't spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso. This is especially true of writers. Writing is learned by imitation. I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it. S.J. Perelman told me that when he was starting out he could have been arrested for imitating Ring Lardner. Woody Allen could have been arrested for imitating S.J. Perelman....

Students often feel guilty about modeling their writing on someone else's writing. They think it's unethical — which is commendable. Or they're afraid they'll lose their own identity. The point, however, is that we eventually move beyond our models; we take what we need and then we shed those skins and become who we are supposed to become. But nobody will write well unless he gets into his ear and into his metabolism a sense of how the language works and what it can be made to do.

—William Zinsser, from Writing to Learn

Watch Carefully

"Many writers feel that they have to put all this drama in their books in order for us to feel something. Drama is always too easy, in a way....

"[I]t’s much more interesting to deal with everyday life, with novelty, with days going by and nothing changing. It’s more difficult, but it’s more interesting—because that’s what most of our lives are. Ninety-nine percent of our days are like the day before. It’s very seldom that we kill ourselves, that we are raped, or killed—luckily. For me, the interesting thing is to deal with that head-on: How do we live when nothing is changing? How do we deal with small things?

"You can still achieve emotional impact without big, dramatic gestures. It’s done by watching very carefully."

Peter Stamm, in "Great Writing Is Humble," The Atlantic