Want to be a Better Writer? Improve and Inspire with Mentor Texts

I was thinking about music today. Specifically learning to play a musical instrument. A piano to be exact.

If you sat down to learn piano, I highly doubt your teacher would help you learn the notes and read music, maybe even teach you how some notes go together, and then tell you to start playing.

In learning to play the piano, or any instrument for that matter, where do people head after they learn the notes? Straight to emulating the masters. Rarely, if ever, does a person learn the musical notes and is then told to compose a symphony. Instead, they play compositions of Mozart and Vivaldi and may never create their own music but still be considered a great musician.

As a kid in art class, I remember learning about Vincent van Gogh and his techniques, and then recreating Starry Night or painting a bowl of fruit from a still life created by the teacher.

We use models and rely on templates for lots of things we do. Whether it’s how to build a table or make a recipe, we take the experience of others and use it to guide our own experiences, adjusting as we go to learn from their expertise.

But for some reason, I don’t see this technique used to train writers as often as it should be. When it comes to writing, we learn the letters and words, and then we are immediately expected to form these words into sentences used to communicate ideas. Sometimes ideas so big that words, as powerful as they are, cannot communicate them with any justice. We’re just thrown into the deep end and expected to write.

This is where mentor texts come in.

Just as when learning to play the piano we are encourage to look to the masters to learn how the notes blend together, the pace and the rhythm, and where to place emphasis, using mentor texts to practice writing can not only improve your style by infusing the styles of others, it can also shake you out of your comfort zone and inspire new ideas. This is a strategy that I’ve often used with students to build their writing confidence by removing the pressure and writing blocks that often come with writing from scratch.

2 Ways to Use Mentor Texts

Copy Directly

Just as a pianist might play Mozart or Vivaldi, you can write Austin or Milton. Choosing a piece or excerpt and copying it down word-for-word can create muscle memory, allowing you to utilize those same devices in your own writing.

In the world of copywriting, this idea pops up quite a bit. I’ve seen lots of recommendation to copy, by hand, Gary Halbert Boron’s letters to his son, written from jail. Touted as one of history’s greatest copywriters, Boron shares his marketing secrets in these letters, and copying them by hand and word-for-word is recommended by copywriters as a way to become immersed in copywriting skills. I haven’t done this yet, but I will report back when I do.

It’s easy to find material for this because you can copy literally anything. Want to infuse some Jane Austen into your style, start with the opening lines of Pride & Prejudice? Looking to perfect your poetry form, copy “Paradise Lost”.

Just choose something, anything really, though I’ve linked a list at the end of this post, and start copying. By immersing yourself in the techniques of the masters, you’ll learn different writing structures and pick up rhetorical strategies that you can incorporate into your writing.

Make the Mentor Text Your Own

This is an exercise I’ve done with my students, and it always turns out well. I think that students, especially those that don’t particularly like or excel at writing, get done and have produced something that sounds good regardless of skill level.

By following a template, they’re able to express their ideas without worrying about structure and starting from scratch and there is always a sense of pride in the finished product.

You can take advantage of this strategy as well. This works best with poetry or short excerpts with a very clear message or structure.

The following example is from a 7th grade student (who has since graduated).

the earth is a living thing
is a black shambling bear
ruffling its wild back and tossing
mountains into the sea

is a black hawk circling
the burying ground circling the bones
picked clean and discarded

is a fish black blind in the belly of water
is a diamond blind in the black belly of coal

is a black and living thing
is a favorite child
of the universe
feel her rolling her hand
in its kinky hair
feel her brushing it clean

the earth is not a living thing
is a wind storm
catching everything in its
powerful gusts

is a bumpy road
spitting dirt up every time
pressure is on it

is a grain of sand in an ocean
is a piece of gold in a glass jar

is a colorful and nonliving thing
is a car favored
by humans
feeling them scratching its paint
leaving it in a garage to rust

I always like using this one because it forced students to think outside the box and get out of their comfort zone to fit their words and message into the poem’s distinct form

If you decide to do this, I’d love to see what you come up with!

Below is a list of poems and texts that would be perfect for either method of using mentor texts.

the earth is a living thing by Lucille Clifton

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin

Paradise Lost by John Milton

I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr. (I suggest skipping to the “I have a dream” section towards the end)

Never Give in, Never, Never, Never by Winston Churchill

Vermin by e.b. White (believe it or not, this poem is not on the internet in an easily accessible form. I had to retype it from a Prezi).

The mouse of Thought infests my head.
He knows my cupboard and the crumb.

Vermin! I despise Vermin.

I have no trap, no skill with traps,
no bait, no hope, no cheese, no bread-
I fumble with the task to no avail.

I’ve seen him several times lately.
He is too quick for me,
I see only his tail.

“Vermin” is perfect for making it your own. You can insert any animal or thing that represents your thoughts. I’ve had students use tornados, frogs, squirrels, and-my personal favorite-a fish in a fishbowl. It could not have been more perfect for that particular student who spent much of his days staring off into space and daydreaming.

Let me know if you try this! What are some of your tips for improving and inspiring writing?

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