Want to Dramatically Improve Your Content? Copy Other Writers (Shamelessly).

by Lorraine Thompson

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Virgil copied Homer. Michaelangelo copied Donatello. Elvis copied Bo Didley.

Traditionally, artists learn by mimicking masters.

It follows then: If you want to be a better copywriter, copy great writers.

I’m not talking here about using swipe files or reworking hit headlines. I mean copying word-for-word.

Copy work—the practice of exactly copying another writer’s words—is an easy, almost effortless way to improve your own writing. Copying helps you think more clearly, write more precisely and produce fresher, more original words.

Don’t believe me?

The honorable tradition of copycat writing

In a digital era flooded with pixelated content, it’s easy to forget pedagogy that pre-dates the printing press. Before there were textbooks, copy work—along with an oral tradition and rote memorization—formed the foundation of a classical education.

Greek and Egyptian schoolboys copied their culture’s great works onto clay tablets.

Nineteenth century American children copied literature, poetry and lessons onto slates.

Hunter Thompson typed the entire text of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Today Buddhist monks still handwrite sutras.

A well-known copywriting course—the granddad of you-too-can-be-a-copywriter info products—requires students to exactly copy the world’s best-pulling sales letters.

Why? In an age that venerates individuality, why mimic others? What’s the benefit to being a copycat?

7 ways copy work helps your writing

First of all, let me make one thing clear: I’m not suggesting plagiary. You won’t publish your copied text or try to fob it off as your own. Copy work is for your eyes alone. It’s a writing exercise.

Copy work improves your writing by helping you…

  1. Absorb structure and style of great works, soaking up the work subliminally.
  2. Immerse yourself in different literary forms and styles by writing, not just reading.
  3. Open a window into great writers’ minds. Copy work gives you insights into the writer’s intentions and choices. It makes you pause to ask why Fitzgerald imagined a stairway to the sky before the moment when Gatsby kisses Daisy. Or notice how Hemingway’s absence of words evokes more powerful emotion than lesser writers’ explanations and descriptions.
  4. Identify bad writing habits—such as passive voice, weak verbs and stale metaphors—by absorbing great writers’ good habits.
  5. Practice the mechanics of good punctuation and grammar, again, by writing instead of just reading.
  6. Improve your spelling. My spelling has slid to hell on a sled over the last twenty years—concurrent with my use of Spell Check. Copy work lets my hand, eye and mind work together to re-learn how to spell.
  7. Clarify your thinking. Precise writing is about precise thought. The slow, methodical work of copying allows your brain to slow down long enough to take stuff in.
  8. How to get started with copy work

    I recently copied, word-for-word, George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. The exercise taught me a few things about copy work I hope will be helpful to you.

    To make the most out of copying a great writer’s text:

    Choose a writer you love or feel inspired by. I loved Orwell’s essay so much I wanted to memorize it. And after copying it for two weeks, I almost have…

    Set aside time to do your copy work. I gave my copying half an hour a day—and used an hourglass to mark the time. As mentioned, it took me more than two weeks to copy Orwell’s essay. But then speed isn’t the point.

    Handwrite the copy. Recent studies support what my kids’ Waldorf teachers have asserted for years: handwriting produces concrete cognitive benefits. I’m also a fan of cursive writing’s esthetic and sensual properties. Writing can, after all, be an art as well as a craft.

    Use quality paper and pen. See esthetic notes above. I love the Lamy Safari fountain pen—it’s totally dependable and costs less than $25.

    Select a reasonably-sized chunk of text. A friend of mine, a former staff writer for Conan O’Brien, once began copying John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. (How’s that going, Guy?) A little ambitious for me. On the other hand, you probably want to choose something longer than a haiku. Think about selecting a passage you can copy over a few days.

    Don’t worry if your copy starts to sound like Nabokov. Or Tony Morrison. Or David Foster Wallace. Well, like maybe you kind of do want to worry if it, you know, like starts sounding like DFW. But don’t worry too much. You’ll shake off the mimicry quickly as the copy increases your consciousness of stylistic nuance.

    Ready to be a copycat?

    What do you think? Could copy work be a useful practice for you? Please share your thoughts in comments.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Hassing March 14, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Hi, Lorraine. I’ve long been tempted to copy Steinbeck. But then I can’t stop reading him! I too feel the departure of spelling. I imagine it’s a chilling check for dementia. Your lovely post is the perfect … bookend to our recent copycat debate:
http://myob.com.au/blog/shadow-boxer/ Thank you for lifting the tone! P. :)

savvysavingbytes March 15, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Hi Lorraine, What a great idea! I’ve always loved, and still love, The Great Gatsby and think I would like to copy it to better see how it’s put together. Interesting tidbit about Hunter Thompson and surprising – would never have imagined him putting that much effort into that kind of study. Pat

Lorraine Thompson March 16, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Paul: Thanks for the kind mention. Yes, I find copy work helps not only with spelling but with plain old memory as well. Ever finish a 400-page book and find yourself unable to recall characters’ names and other details? Happens to me all the time. But a little less as a copy out favorite passages.

Savvy: YES! I recently copied out the stairway scene from The Great Gatsby mentioned above, as well as the scene in which Nick first sees Daisy and Jordan dressed in white and lounging on a couch “buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon.”

craig March 18, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Interesting idea. This is how I taught myself to type. Took the first chapter of a book only because I liked how it started the story and just started type. Over and over, I typed the whole chapter.

And now here you are, giving me a new perspective on what I was doing. Oh how very interesting.

Lorraine Thompson March 19, 2012 at 9:17 am

@Craig: Super idea. While I believe in the cognitive benefits of handwriting, I also desperately need to improve my typing. Your method has inspired me to try again the (for me) onerous practice of touch typing.

Craig March 19, 2012 at 8:56 pm

Thanks for the Twitter follow. At the moment I am tearing down my blog , reformating it. Once that is done I should be more active on Twitter again.

Rhonda Roso January 16, 2014 at 10:32 am

Great article about copywork! I’ve been publishing copywork e-books (pdf files) with biblical and academic themes to download and print out since 2008. In both cursive and manuscript, each title is available in traditional, modern, and italic handwriting styles. I homeschooled twin boys all 12 years and we experienced the tremendous benefits of daily copywork. Free printables are also available.

Shashank January 17, 2014 at 9:57 pm

Hi, Lorraine, I have a short query. Some of the writers one admires have a vast volume of work. Would a copying a small piece help?

Lorraine Thompson February 9, 2014 at 9:46 am

@Rhonda: I look forward to exploring you site. And congratulations on your home schooling achievement. As mentioned, my kids’ early Waldorf education convinced me of handwriting’s cognitive–and other–benefits.

@Shashank: Most certainly it would be helpful to copy a smaller portion–a chapter or number of paragraphs–of a longer work you admire.

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