Once during my undergraduate days, a professor assigned the class to write an essay about our group, utilizing the collective pronoun “we”. She asked us what attributes the class shared and wrote them on the board. At the time I was reading John Updike’s Rabbit novels, whose main protagonist is Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a WASPy, middle class suburbanite, whose attributes were not unlike those of our class. Updike often utilized third-person plural, especially in meditative passages about the lives of those who peopled Rabbit’s world. Here are a couple examples: “We were all brought up to want things and maybe the world isn’t big enough for all that wanting.” And another from a ruminating section: “How sad, how strange we make companions out of air and hurt them, so they will defy us, completing creation.” Both of these quotes are from Rabbit Redux, a sequel to his Rabbit, Run.

Many of my fellow students were also mothers (I attended an all-female college.) I opened my essay with sentences that went something like this: “We navigated our way through the stops and starts of carpools. We selected red, foulard ties to go with our husbands’ s grey suits. We rushed to the market before the 3 o’clock bell tolled at our children’s schools.” Without realizing it, I had learned from Updike.

Francine Prose, novelist and author of Reading Like a Writer, says “After I’ve written an essay in which I’ve quoted at length from great writers, so that I’ve had to copy long passages from their work, I’ve noticed that my own work becomes, however briefly, just a little more fluent.”

Try this for yourself. Take whatever it is you are currently reading (or a book you’ve already read and that you especially like) and underline some passages that struck you as particularly memorable. You can even copy them out, as Prose did. Wait a day. Then reread what you underlined or copied out, several times. The next day write anything for 20 minutes, and assess your work. I’d be surprised if you don’t detect a change in your writing.

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