As Jeremy detailed on Monday, many colleges are turning out graduates who, even after four years of higher education, have cognitive skills that are still sorely lacking. Of particular note is a seeming decline in grads’ writing abilities; one-third of students see no improvement in their writing skills from freshman to senior year, and 80% of employers wish colleges would put more emphasis on this area.
Even if you have no plans on becoming a professional writer, being able to write well is one of the most important skills you can have. From typing up memos at a corporation, to penning blog posts that accompany your online store, to writing grant proposals for your non-profit — it is a skill that will truly come in handy no matter what line of work you end up going into.
Beyond just having professional benefits, learning to write better will up your game in your love notes and enhance your correspondence with others – whether through email or handwritten letters. Writing is truly an ability every man should seek to practice and improve throughout his life.
With that in mind, from time to time we’ll be sharing posts on how to sharpen your writing skills. None of us here on AoM consider ourselves master writers, and we’re all constantly trying to improve as well. So think of these posts as tips from fellow travelers.
Today we’re going to explore what we consider the very best way to get started with becoming a better writer: copying the work of others. Copywork, as it’s called, used to be the standard method by which students learned to write, and it is the “secret” to how many of history’s greatest writers mastered the craft. While it may sound unsexy and unoriginal, it really works, and today we’ll show you how to get started.
The History of Copywork
Copywork was the primary way that schools in 18th and 19th century America taught children how to write. It was thought to be a highly effective way to teach students handwriting as well as proper grammar, punctuation, and syntax.
But during the 20th century, schools began to shift away from the method, believing that “mere” imitation wasn’t the best way to teach children how to write well. Instead, teachers sought to convey the overarching strategies that made for good writing and then set students loose to produce it.
This approach makes sense in theory, but the studies mentioned above, as well as my own anecdotal evidence (98% of the guest posts we receive – and these are articles from folks who want to write for a living – are abjectly terrible), show that it doesn’t seem to be working very well in creating competent writers.
So maybe our educational forebearers were on to something after all. While it may sound dull and ineffective on the surface, imitation is the primary way we learn things. When we were babies, we learned how to talk, interact with other humans, and walk through imitation. When we learn an athletic skill, we begin by simply imitating others. When we want to know how to act in different situations, we watch how others act. So why do we shun the idea of copying when it comes to writing?
At issue is our modern infatuation with the idea of originality and creativity – a belief that good art of any kind will spring unabated from a place of passion within us. Yet ironically, many of history’s greatest writers achieved that status not from harkening to the muses, but by laboriously copying the work of others.
Eminent Writers Who Used Copywork to Become Great Writers
“Reading the works of men who had arrived, he noted every result achieved by them, and worked out the tricks by which they had been achieved — the tricks of narrative, of exposition, of style, the points of view, the contrasts, the epigrams; and of all these he made lists for study. He did not ape. He sought principles. He drew up lists of effective and fetching mannerisms, till out of many such, culled from many writers, he was able to induce the general principle of mannerism, and, thus equipped, to cast about for new and original ones of his own, and to weigh and measure and appraise them properly. In similar manner he collected lists of strong phrases, the phrases of living language, phrases that bit like acid and scorched like flame, or that glowed and were mellow and luscious in the midst of the arid desert of common speech. He sought always for the principle that lay behind and beneath. He wanted to know how the thing was done; after that he could do it for himself. He was not content with the fair face of beauty. He dissected beauty in his crowded little bedroom laboratory…and, having dissected, and learned the anatomy of beauty, he was nearer being able to create beauty itself.” –Jack London, of his alter ego, Martin Eden
We often believe that history’s greatest writers would simply put pen to paper, and wait for beautiful prose to erupt like a geyser from their fountain of inborn talent. We believe that only a truly ungifted writer – a real hack – would have to learn how to write by copying other people.
The truth is most great writers began by doing just that – painstakingly writing out in longhand the works of the greats who had come before them.
They understood that one’s writing style does not emerge fully developed like Athena from Zeus’ head, but has to be cultivated. Imitation of another’s style was not the end of this cultivation process, but a means to an end. Like a chef who never stops sampling and dissecting the delicious dishes of other cooks in order to find inspiration to up his own game and create his own new recipes, great writers spun the underlying elements of others’ style into something uniquely theirs.
Here are just a few of history’s great writers who mastered their craft through copywork:
Jack London. Jack London was largely self-educated and his first attempts at writing professionally resulted in a thick stack of rejection letters. He knew he had to improve his writing, and was willing to apply himself with single-minded devotion until he had achieved his goal.
A large part of the self-improvement program London set out for himself involved studying the work of other great writers. Of these literary mentors, London most admired the style of Rudyard Kipling. For hours at a time, and days on end, he would make it his assignment to copy page after page of Kipling’s works in longhand. Through such feverish effort, he hoped to absorb his hero’s rhythmic musicality and energetic cadence, along with the master’s ability to produce what one contemporary critic called “throat-grabbing phrase.”
London’s labor was not in vain, and later in his life he openly and gratefully acknowledged the debt he owed to this exercise:
“As to myself, there is no end of Kipling in my work. I have even quoted him. I would never possibly have written anywhere near the way I did had Kipling never been. True, true, every bit of it.”
Robert Louis Stevenson. When the author of classics like Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde decided he wanted to learn how to really write, he copied word for word the great prose of those who had come before him. Stevenson would take a passage from a great writer and carefully read it twice. He’d then turn over the passage and try to reproduce it from memory — word for word and punctuation mark for punctuation mark. At first the exercise was a tremendous struggle and his attempted copies were riddled with errors. But with practice, he was able to read huge passages and reproduce them from memory with exactitude. He continued the practice even after he became a literary success.
Besides helping him learn style and grammar, the way Stevenson did his copywork — reading the passage twice and trying to replicate it from memory — also made him a more attentive reader. Which, of course, only helped further improve his writing.
G.K. Chesterton would say that Stevenson always seemed to have an uncanny ability “to pick the right word up on the point of his pen.” The irony is that Stevenson’s originality and sharp eye for style was forged from years of studied imitation.
Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was not only an inventor, statesman, and publisher, but also a prolific writer. Besides penning his famous autobiography, he produced numerous magazine articles and several scientific treatises. To master the writing craft, Franklin created a copywork-like exercise for himself when he was a teenager:
“About this time I met with an odd volume of The Spectator – I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it.
With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again.
I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and complete the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language.”
Instead of transcribing essays word for word, Franklin’s copywork exercise looked like this:
- Read essay.
- Make notes for each sentence that he read and set it aside.
- Look at notes and try to replicate essay in his own words (he’d sometimes jumble up his notes to make the exercise even more difficult).
- Compare his version to the original.
- Revise and improve his version.
Why Copywork Will Help You Become a Better Writer
I learned about copywork while I was in law school and used it as a way to improve my own writing. My methodology was similar to Franklin’s. I’d take legal memos from reputable attorneys, read them and take notes, and try to replicate the memo based off of those notes. It was freaking hard, but well worth the effort. Nothing helped my writing more than that exercise.
I wish I had learned about copywork earlier in my academic career. As Kate can attest, before law school, my writing abilities hovered somewhere between mediocre and horrible. Copywork continues to help my writing improve.
Here’s why copywork is so effective in strengthening your writing chops:
Improves your style. As you copy the greats, you’ll slowly find yourself noticing the different elements of their unique, but often subtle writing styles. At the same time, these masterful elements will almost imperceptibly become absorbed into your own style.
Improves your word choice and syntax. An important part of a writer’s style is their word choice and syntax. As you carefully read the work of accomplished writers and copy them on to paper by hand, you’ll see how the masters carefully choose and arrange words for maximum impact. Improving my word choice and syntax has been the biggest boon for me with copywork.
For example, whenever I feel like my writing is starting to get a bit bloated, doing copywork with Hemingway seems to get me back on track for making it a little punchier. Robert Greene’s writing is another of my favorite sources to copy when I’m looking to get better at streamlining my own. If I’m feeling like my writing needs a bit more masculine energy, I’ll copy out the works of Jack London.
Improve paragraphs. Two areas of writing that many folks have trouble with is how to organize paragraphs and make the transition from one paragraph to the next. Copywork gives you an in-depth view of how great writers organize their thoughts.
You may even learn how to master the power of the one-sentence paragraph.
(See what I did there?)
Improves spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Hopefully, you’ll only copy the works of established writers whose works have been rigorously edited and proofread. By doing so, you’ll get to practice your spelling (which is probably terrible thanks to spellcheck) as well as the mechanics of good punctuation and grammar.
Additional Non-Writing Benefits
Besides improving your writing, copywork provides other compelling benefits as well:
Improves memory and focus. If you use Stevenson’s method of copywork, you’re bound to improve your memory and focus in the process. It requires an intense amount of cognitive strength to read a paragraph twice and then write it out word for word from memory. When I first tried it, I positively sucked. I couldn’t even complete one sentence. But with time, one sentence became two, and soon I was able to transcribe entire paragraphs from memory.
If you’re a student and need to memorize your class notes or an outline, writing them out over and over again by hand will do the trick. I used this tactic extensively in law school and credit it with allowing me to memorize 20-page outlines for my closed book exams.
It’s meditative. Copywork can also be quite meditative, and has been used by adherents of religious traditions to deepen their faith.
One of Judaism’s 613 commandments is that every male must copy the Hebrew Torah by hand sometime in his life. Each of this “Sefer Torah’s” 304,805 letters are inked with a quill pen upon special parchment. To ensure the transcription is without blemish and thus honors God, the copywork is done with painstaking care and can take a year and a half to complete.
While Christian monks and priests of the pre-printing press era had to copy the Bible by hand out of necessity, they turned the task into a spiritual meditation — by writing God’s word on parchment, they felt as if they were inscribing the words on their hearts as well. (Many Christian families that homeschool have their kids do copywork with Bible verses for this same purpose. Copywork in general remains a popular practice in homeschooling circles.)
As someone who has done extensive copywork for years, I can vouch for its meditative property. When you first start, you’ll be bored out of your mind. But with time, you’ll find yourself slipping into a zen-like state. The monkey chatter in your brain will quiet down and you’ll feel a renewed sense of calm at the end of your session. I even find myself gaining insights about the text I’m copying when I’m particularly in the zone.
Improves handwriting. If you want to improve your handwriting, copywork is for you. It’s the way students have practiced their penmanship since ancient times, and it was used extensively in American schools in the 18th and 19th centuries. As you do your copywork, take it slow and focus on your writing technique. Be deliberate with each stroke. If it takes five minutes to write a perfectly legible sentence, so be it. With time and continued practice, you’ll notice your handwriting improving.
How to Get Started
1. Choose a writer that inspires you. Don’t pick writers you think you should imitate. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with these guys, so you want to pick someone who has a style you genuinely enjoy and that truly inspires you.
I also recommend choosing writers from both fiction and non-fiction. Because I spend most of my time writing non-fiction, I do copywork with non-fiction writers that I admire and wish to emulate. However, I do mix in fiction copywork from time to time. I feel like it helps give my writing a bit of panache.
2. Handwrite. Studies have shown that handwriting provides a myriad of cognitive benefits. We actually learn better and think clearer when we write by hand. To get maximum benefit from copywork, overcome the temptation to tap it out on your laptop and utilize pen and paper instead.
3. Start with shorter passages and slowly work your way up to longer pieces. Don’t start off by copying War and Peace. You’ll just burn out. Start with smaller passages and then work your way up to longer pieces. Poems, scripture verses, and aphorisms are good places to start. You could also do copywork with our manvotionals and gain some virility along with your improved writing skills. After that, move on to short stories and from there to whole books.
4. Set aside time each day for it. Make copywork a daily habit like journal writing. I try to do mine at the start of my writing sessions for the blog. It primes the writing pump.
Don’t be deceived by the simplicity of copywork. It really does work if you put in the effort and time.