Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s likely to fall flat when extended to emulating a favorite author’s writing style. That said, studying one’s favorite writers for inspiration can be productive.
I would never attempt to copy the writing style of Patrick O’Brian, whose gifts I discussed in this post. In his series of seafaring novels, he effectively flavors his prose with a slightly mannered, old-fashioned tone, defying the odds in his imitative gamble, but I wouldn’t try to piggyback on his success.
I am intrigued, however, by how he often omits narrative that would describe what in the acting profession is called business: walking, pouring a drink, puttering about while waiting for another person’s arrival, and so on. For example, he often offhandedly has a speaking character refer to another person’s actions so that the minor character needn’t make a superfluous remark to signal his or her presence.
O’Brian doesn’t use this technique consistently; he often describes events and actions as thoroughly as any other writer, but at times, he opts to let a character’s comments take care of business, or even ignores it altogether. I’d like to try that sometime.
Another writer I admire is Bill Bryson, a master of informative but humorous nonfiction, whose trademark style includes a droll exaggeration and an exuberant delight in discovery. Again, I wouldn’t dare to try to echo his voice, but Bryson’s impish tone reminds me that, sober or silly, writing — as well as reading — should be entertaining.
Also for nonfiction writers, I recommend two entire subgenres: One, which I call (for want of knowledge of any official designation) inanimate biography, explores the natural and cultural history of a single life-form or substance or product or concept.
The earliest specimen I know of representing this type of book, which flourished around the turn of the last century, is Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky. Laugh all you want — Cod? That’s a sexy subject! — and then read it. (Kurlansky also wrote the definitive biography of salt, and in a later book he chronicled the history of nonviolence.)
Just when I think everything’s been written about, I see a new inanimate biography on a bookstore or library bookshelf, and there are plenty of topics waiting for their turn in the literary limelight. This type of treatment, in more concise form, is ideal for magazine articles and blog posts, too.
Another inspirational nonfiction category is that — also unnamed, as far as I know — of the historical treatise rendered more entertaining as a result of frequent asides or anecdotes. I’m a history buff, and I like scientific history as well as political and social history, but many books in these areas desiccate what should be an invigorating topic.
However, books like Sam Kean’s The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code make an educational experience tasty as well as nutritious. (Many similar books exist to inform and inspire you; this is just the one I read most recently.) Search out books in this vein to encourage your own writing.