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…
- Absorb structure and style of great works, soaking up the work subliminally.
- Immerse yourself in different literary forms and styles by writing, not just reading.
- 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.
- Identify bad writing habits—such as passive voice, weak verbs and stale metaphors—by absorbing great writers’ good habits.
- Practice the mechanics of good punctuation and grammar, again, by writing instead of just reading.
- 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.
- 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.
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.