Chip MacGregor

September 9, 2014

Copying the Masters: Learning from great writers past and present


brick green no smile b:wI’ve always been fascinated with the way artists have learned their various crafts throughout history. In the 1400s, if you wanted to be a sculptor, your family apprenticed you to an artist’s workshop in which you’d learn the skills of that medium as you assisted your master in producing his work– the master’s name was on the end product, but as many as a dozen apprentices and assistants may have helped with/worked on a piece. In the 1600s, artists’ guilds were the training ground of choice for future artists, highly regulated and exclusive organizations which existed to protect the interests and promote the work of their members. In the 1800s, if you wanted to be a painter, the way to get started was to move to Paris, stop eating, and spend your days in the Louvre, copying the works of the old masters as meticulously as possible.


Fast-forward to today, where the Internet age has made it much easier for artists of all kinds to access training. Graphic designers can take online classes, musicians can learn to play instruments from YouTube videos, and writers can complete entire MFA programs without ever setting foot in a classroom. While none of this instruction is necessarily less valuable for being accessed remotely, there is something lost when artists learn in a vacuum instead of in community and in close collaboration with (or via exposure to the work of) a “master” of their craft.


That’s why writer’s groups, critique partners, and conferences are so important to a developing writer, specifically those in which you have the opportunity to learn from/work alongside with highly skilled and experienced writers in your genre. Just as the Renaissance painters flourished working alongside and under more experienced artists who offered immediate feedback and instruction and correction, so modern writers who seek out partnership or “apprenticeship” with stronger writers tend to become aware of their weaknesses sooner and hone their craft more quickly than a writer whose only feedback comes from a rejection letter when he finally send out the manuscript he worked on in isolation for two years.


A question I’m often asked in response to the advice to get involved in a writer’s group/find a writing mentor/etc. is, “What if I can’t find a mentor/group/critique partner,” or “What if I’m the strongest writer in my critique group? Who do I learn from then?” The good news is, there IS a way to learn from the “masters” even if you’re not able to join a writer’s group full of them, and that is to read their work.


Seriously. I maintain that the majority of what I learned about writing and storytelling came not from a classroom or a textbook (though I had some great teachers in those areas), but from reading as many books as I could get my hands on from the time I learned how to read. Pacing, climax, subplots, humor, suspense– these are nearly all better learned intuitively from constant exposure to the kinds of authors you aspire to write like than via some formula posted by some agent in her Tuesday blog.


Read the works of some of the best writers in your genre as if you were their apprentice; pay attention to their trademarks, to what they do exceptionally well and how they do it, and even try re-writing pages of your manuscript while copying their style/voice as closely as you can, just as an exercise. You might be surprised at what you notice about your own manuscript after spending some time with the “masters” in your genre.


What relationships with other writers have been the most helpful to you in honing your craft? Comments are always welcome, and thanks for reading!

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  • Tracie Heskett says:

    I’ve found both working with writers in real life (asking questions, taking workshops, receiving critique/feedback) and reading “masters” to be helpful. Aside from soaking up great writing, I turn to an award-winning book by a favorite author when I want to work on a specific technique, for example, developing a character’s spiritual life. Thanks for encouraging us to continue to hone our craft in many different ways!

  • Blake Atwood says:

    In the last year, I’ve joined a “real-life” writer’s group as well as an online group. Both have been instrumental in my writing life. My IRL group is writing a collaborative short story, which has been challenging and exhilarating. My online group provides a (mostly) weekly kick in the literary pants to get work done.

    And though writers are often a busy bunch, I’ve discovered that asking simple, no-strings-attached questions can often open doors to develop relationships with established writers.

  • Nick Kording says:

    I couldn’t agree more. When I was in screenwriting class, one of the things we did was read some of the great screenplays and take them apart – finding plot points… hero/antagonist and their arcs and subplots, theme, etc…. was best learning experience I’ve had so far as a writer

  • Cameron Bane says:

    Great article, Erin; I absolutely agree with every point!

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