First, Read More
Everyone says that to write better, you must read and read a lot and read widely!
Reading exposes you to the variety of writing styles. It dips you into a story with differing plots, worlds, and characters. As a writer, you read books differently. More critically. Sure, you lose yourself in bits of a story, but you find yourself stopping and flipping back over the pages asking how the author did what they did.
To read widely is to read across genres. If you’re a fantasy author, you would, of course, read fantasy, but also science fiction, thriller, historical fiction, romance, horror, and the list goes on. You learn how those writers create and set the atmosphere in their books, and you too can use those same techniques to boost sections of your writing. You can make the action more engrossing and the horror more skin-crawling.
And with all of that, there is still one more thing that can push your writing over the edge.
What Is Copywork
Copywork is the practice of copying written works. Literally. You sit, and you type or handwrite paragraph after paragraph of another writer’s work.
Many writers, such as Hunter S. Thompson, and Benjamin Franklin according to Art of Manliness, and Billy Collins used this technique to improve their writing. To learn the structure of it from those they admired and I, too, have done the same.
We all have done copywork in some form, and it’s been around longer than some may realize.
You can look back on the word Scribe in which, according to Wikipedia, is
a person who serves as a professional copyist, especially one who made copies of manuscripts before the invention of automatic printing.
The art of producing a book, or documents, was manual.
Or for many of us, we can look back to our childhood in which to learn to read and write we copyworked. We filled lined sheets of paper and notebooks with letters, words, and sentences. Each page an example of what we were to copy. We did this over and over to learn the alphabet, to learn a word, and to build sentences.
Now, as adults, we may copy a paragraph from a book we’ve read, or write a quote that resonated with us. This is all copywork. I’ve hinted around this in my How I use Readwise article.
Why Practice Copywork
By copying the writer’s work, word for word, you are diving deeper into that text. You’re engaging with it. Conversing with the author. You build the same sentence they do. The same paragraph. The same chapter. And in doing so, you learn their pacing, word choice, and sentence structure. You learn how they end sentences and paragraphs. When the pacing picks up and when it slows.
You become intimate with the text in a way you hadn’t been before.
This isn’t limited to fictional writing, as these same benefits apply to non-fiction writing. Maybe you write essays or you are a blogger. Picking a writer to copy will help you deconstruct a piece of writing and help you truly understand how it works.
My Experience With Copywork
By copying the works of other writers, has my writing improved?
I’m not saying my writing is great, but I have noticed definite improvements that I hadn’t before, such as:
- increased vocabulary,
- better ending of paragraphs and sentences
- in-paragraph dialogue
- dialog tag use
- scene descriptions and detail
When I compare my earlier writing to my post copywork writing, the text is more mature. There are also fewer revisions I must do, as the sentences and paragraphs are better structured.
This is to all say that I now look at my writing and say, “I think we’ve got something here.”
An Example of Copywork
In a copywork session of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the following quote stood out to me as I copied Cateyln’s chapter in the first book, A Game of Thrones:
The godswood there was a garden, bright and airy, where tall redwoods spread dappled shadows across tinkling streams, birds sang from hidden nests, and the air was spicy with the scent of flowers.
The word that made me pause was dappled. It means:
marked with spots or rounded patches
I found this an interesting word to use. The word isn’t new to be sure, but it is one that is seldom used, in my experience. Therefore, in the text, the word seemed almost picturesque. Something you’d see in a Disney movie to depict the beauty and splendor of the godswood and the rippling blades of the sun. All of this to draw stark contrast to that of Winterfell’s godswood. (No pun intended)
A single word, but further uplifted by the surrounding text, I can see how Martin is tackling the scene and building the world, at least from the view of one character. It would not be a word that I would have reached for and substituting it for anything else to describe the shadows doesn’t feel right.
To think I never questioned the word choice on my third series read through. It only occurred during a copywork session.
How To Copywork
Copying a writer is simple; you pick up a book and start typing or penning away. Even so, I will share some of my tips:
Things To Do
- Don’t stick to a single author. The goal is to learn writing techniques, not imitate the author. Change it up.
- Mix genres; nonfiction to fiction, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, poetry, film scripts. All teach different methods of writing, scene structures, dialogue, and setup.
- Set a time limit: 15–30 minutes
- Practice daily, if you can
Want to spice it up? Here are a few things I’ve done once I got accustomed to the practice of simple copywork:
- Read a passage, memorize it, then type it word for word from memory.
- Make notes about the character, scene, action, etc., and then write from memory
- Make notes about the character, scene, action, etc., and then write a new scene (fan fiction)
- Convert the passage to song or poetry and back to prose
After the above, I would ask if I chose the same words as the original author. If not, why was my word choice different from theirs? This pushes me further into the text and the choices the author was making. It also helps me recognize my stylistic choices. Thanks, Benjamin Franklin.
Things To Keep In Mind
- This goes without saying, don’t post it or do anything to pass it off as yours. This is for your own personal practice.
- Don’t compare their work to yours. What you are copying are words, sentences, and paragraphs that have been revised and revised and revised and revised some more. What is important is to look at the structure and, with the additional test I proposed above, decipher why they may have made certain decisions. Keep this in mind as you revise your work.
- Search for the author’s thoughts on their writing. You may have copied an author in your practice sessions and so it wouldn’t hurt to look up if they shared notes or thoughts on a story they’ve written. Neil Gaiman has shared notes on American Gods that may prove useful when I do a copywork session of his work. (Of course, don’t click that link if you haven’t read the book)
If you didn’t know about copywork, now you know. If you knew, you knew.
Go forth and copy the greats.