Imitation (Rhetoric and Composition)

Imitation (Rhetoric and Composition)

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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. Also known (in Latin) as imitatio.

"It is a universal rule of life," says Quintilian in the Institutes of Oratory (95), "that we should wish to copy what we approve in others."


From the Latin, "imitate"

Examples and Observations

  • "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)
  • "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)

Red Smith on Imitation

"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)

Imitation in Classical Rhetoric

"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)

The Sequence of Imitation Exercises in Roman Rhetoric

"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…

"As part of imitation, students would then read aloud a paraphrase or a recasting of one's own text for the teacher and his classmates before moving on to the final phase, which involved correction by the teacher."

(Donovan J. Ochs, "Imitation." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, ed. by Theresa Enos. Taylor & Francis, 1996)

Imitation and 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)

Also See

  • Sentence Imitation
  • Mimesis
  • Commonplace Book
  • Copia
  • Dissoi Logoi
  • Imitating the Style of the Spectator, by Benjamin Franklin
  • Pastiche
  • Prose

Sentence-Imitation Exercises

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