Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why You Should Be a Copycat

If you'd been able to sneak into my home office on a recent Wednesday at 6:15 a.m., you would have found me hunched over my computer, copying text from the book Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik.

Why was I doing that? At that time of day?

Funnily enough, I've found that copying other writers, word for word, is one of the most effective ways I've found of improving my own writing. It's my own form of deliberate practice.

Since I started copying first thing in the morning (before checking email!) I've used blog posts, magazine articles and books. The source material doesn't matter much, as long as the writing is good. I copy using my keyboard, not by hand. I suspect that a paper and pen might be more effective but I find it too painful to write by hand. No matter. I know that doing something daily — even if I'm not doing it perfectly — is far better than doing it rarely. 

Here's what I like about my morning habit:

Copying helps me understand information better. I don't know what possessed me to copy Spunk & Bite. It's a lovely book but my style is nothing like Art Plotnik's and I'm not sure I want it to become so. I think his sense of humor drew me — doing anything at 6:30 am needs to be at least a little fun. But it turns out the old rascal is convincing me that adverbs might just have a place in my writing. (See page 37-42 if you have his book.) I did not have this revelation after reading the book once; it took copying to convince me.

Copying helps me absorb the voice of writers I want to emulate. Copying is for writers as performing scales is for musicians. You don't have to think hard when doing it. Occasionally, you may even find it boring. But it gives you a facility with language. Better, it gives you another writer's facility. The act of copying exposes you to the deep internal structure of a piece and allows you to absorb its rhythms and cadences. Sometimes you'll like what you copy — but you may also be pleasantly surprised by what you learn when you don't. 

Copying helps me learn how to achieve specific goals. Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of a New York Times piece by Alex Halberstadt:

Inside the renovated Le Bernardin in Midtown Manhattan, the pink flowers are as tall as dogwoods and the latticework walls give off a coppery, sci-fi sheen, and Christopher Kimball, the most influential home cook in American prods a fork into an appetizer of Wagyu beef, langoustine and osetra caviar from China. He pulls apart the cylinder and glances skeptically inside. "I'm happier eating at Di Far," he claims, meaning the slice parlor in an Orthodox Jewish section of Midwood, Brooklyn, that has been occasionally hounded by the city's Health Department. "Just real pizza," Kimball enthuses. "No duck sausage and crap." It's true that he appears out of place amid the restaurant's boardroom-in-space decor; with his bow tie, suspenders and severely parted hair, Kimball looks like someone who might've sold homeowner's insurance to Calvin Coolidge.

I enjoyed reading the piece so much that I copied all 6,628 words of it. And, ironically, here's what I found out: I didn't like the writing nearly as much as I thought I had. I found that many of his sentences were too long and many of his words too big or too abstract. 

But here were two things the writer did astoundingly well: He produced fantastic images (see: "pink flowers as tall as dogwoods") and he knew how to use a small number of quotes extraordinarily well. In the 134 words above, only 14 of them (highlighted in blue) are quotes. Many beginning reporters over-quote and it's a trap that I still fall into, too. After copying the piece it occurred to me that Alex Halberstadt could be the one to teach me how to quote more modestly.

We all learned to talk by copying our parents and our caregivers. Why should we not learn to write that way, too?


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday June 12th 2013, 1:27 AM
Comment by: Luis M A. (Saltillo Mexico)
Ever since I was studying my BS at Cal Poly Pomona, back in the 70's, I've been using the same techique, and it has been of tremendous help for me to learn and to have a better command of English. It is true, as you mention, that this practice, in the long run, gives confidence in the usage of language.
Thanks for your article
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 2:25 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (Walkerston Australia)
I always found it difficult to create a report from scratch. It was mostly because I wasn't very experienced. I found that it was always easy to critique the work of others, to edit it and the turn it into something completely different. I keep a library of various technical writing and always use an existing document to create a new one. Well almost always. This helped me to define to table of contents since I kept improving my understanding of what should be included. I also found that each technical author had a limited vocabulary. Engineering did it to.me as well. That's why I love VT.
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 4:31 AM
Comment by: Dave the scribe (Wincanton United Kingdom)
Hello Daphne

What a Phantabulus idea! I am going to make this a daily habit. Maybe a little later in the day though. At 6:30 I am in my study listening to my Self Hypnosis MP3 and visualizing myself sitting at my computer, writing away and finding the right words every time so that I never need to rewrite anything. If only...

Prosperity to all scribblers!

davethescribe
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 8:21 AM
Comment by: Radames M. (Staten Island, NY)
Remarkable! You brought back some high school memories. My English poetry teacher emphasized that copying poetry would improve our ability to create our own style. No matter how much we copy, the end result would still be our original style. Thanks for the memories.
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 8:23 AM
Comment by: Rudolf M. (Almonte Canada)
the best way to learn a new language and to improve the one you are using presently !
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 8:45 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
I love to write, but have never thought of copying other writers. I'm curious about how often you do this exercise, or if you don't have a set time or number of times per week. And I wanted to tell you that I sent my 15-year-old granddaughter your article on kaizen to help her with her school work next year. She was thrilled to have a way to manage her work. She gets behind and goes into panic and becomes paralyzed. Then she's miserable. So thanks so much for all your good articles!
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 10:38 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for all of your kind words! Meredith, I copy for five minutes a day (seven days a week.) I have a couple of books by my desk and a stack of printed articles and I just grab something from the pile and start copying until my timer beeps. Then I take another five minutes to correct my typing/spelling mistakes and to re-read what I've typed.

I used to try to copy for 30 minutes once a week, but I find five minutes per days works so much better. Who can't do ANYTHING for only five minutes?
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Thanks, Daphne, for explaining your routine. I'm retired, so my time is my own, and I know I can do it. I'm looking at "One Small Step Can Change Your Life" and your five minutes fits right into that way of moving through my day. I'm really good at overwhelming myself, and this seems the perfect method to stop that from happening. So I agree with you that I can do anything for only five minutes and will begin today. You'll laugh when I tell you that I've already tried copying once this morning, but got caught up in choosing the right book. By the time I actually began, I got a phone call, and an invitation to lunch, etc. etc. etc. But it will happen today no matter what else comes up. Thanks again!
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 11:55 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Yes, indeed, thanks for that. I've never heard of the idea before but it fascinates me. We are so used to living at a fast pace, skim reading most things in order to increase our chances of getting through a backlog of articles, emails, books, etc.

Your article suggests that even when we read at 'normal' speed we are actually missing a lot that lies buried in the text. I wonder if the practice of copying text eventually trains the brain to read more deeply?
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 12:21 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
THANK YOU, Ma'am! I never heard of this technique before and can't wait to try it. (But I will wait until I have a keyboard that doesn't lock on my every third down-stroke . . ) Now I am suddenly chilled to the bone with the thought of what spending years as a 90 wpm typist did to my writing in my salad years when I was a medical secretary. Do we have self-protective neurons in our brains that keep us from apeing the horrid prose of research hematologists?
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 2:31 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Geoff, my guess is I believe it does. I've always taken notes on material that I want to remember. There are actually people who advise against speed-reading because of what it does to your comprehension and pleasure in reading.

And to Roberta, I'll say: read Patricia Cornwell's novels. She is a bestselling writer, who invented Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the Chief Medical Examiner in a place in Virginia. You may be faced with science whether you want it or not after your earlier career. :o) I believe anyone/everyone can write a novel, and, if you're at all interested, check out NaNoWriMo.com. I've written two so far. I'm still editing, but I'll probably write another 50,000 words in November. Good luck!
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 6:01 PM
Comment by: cecelia O.
Thank you for this insight! I've copied other writers' words before to "catch the wave" like a surfer, but had not put it together that the practice of doing so would transform my writing. Nice!

I've often reflected on how strongly my reading preferences as a child affected my writing style as an adult. I had a real predilection for late 19th and early 20th century adventure fiction written for young men (I was just a precocious tom boy:). I guess I was unconsciously already copying at that age! I had to "weed out" my writing style a bit, especially in my profession as a museum exhibit and web content writer.
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 6:56 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
If this idea is new to you note that Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write using this technique!
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 8:32 PM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
I'll just post this note about my experience with speed reading, since it's been mentioned a couple of times, apparently by some who haven't tried it. At first, I was amazed at how much MORE I comprehended and remembered from the material I used when I was first learning speed reading. And, far from decreasing my emotional pleasure, fiction, especially, but even technical material just seems more vivid when I use this technique. Your brain doesn't get overwhelmed--it seems to just rev up and is perfectly capable of handling it. It's like what they say about how little of our brains we use/waste--this is something that takes advantage of our amazing mental capabilities.

In my experience.
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 9:15 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Thanks, Sue B. for your validation of speed-reading. I have honestly thought it wasn't the way to enjoy reading. But I probably was speed-reading in some of those English classes where I had to read a novel every 3 days and take a test on it, and what you've said has reminded me that I was totally capable of remembering what I read so quickly. I'm going to look further into this. Can you suggest a good book or program that teaches speed-reading?
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 10:20 PM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
Wow, Meredith C., it has to have been at least 35 years ago that I did my speed reading training with Evelyn Wood! I haven't kept up with that field at all, but they are at ewrd.com, and I'm sure you'll be able to find a wealth of commentary online.

Just to be very clear: speed reading is NOT "skimming." The mental process is very different. I use both techniques, depending on what I'm doing, and I also read just "normally," especially because, it must be admitted, speed reading takes a certain mental energy level that I'm not always into (for instance, when I'm taking care of my grandchild I'm not about to focus myself on reading to the extent that speed reading requires!).

Also, speed reading isn't tricks or tips--it is a practiced discipline. One wouldn't expect to be able to run a marathon without a good deal of practice, and that's a good analogy for speed reading, although it's also true that you can start applying the principles and see an amazing difference immediately. Still, if you want it to be useful to you, you'll have to practice it, train your brain, all that kind of stuff. Only natural, right? :-)

Hope this helps.
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 10:22 PM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
P.S. to Meredith C.: You are in the town my father was born in! I like you already. :-D
Wednesday June 12th 2013, 11:13 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Thanks, Sue B. I liked you as soon as I read your post. That hasn't happened before, so that's special. I doubt if your father would recognize this town.
I like your explanation of the differences in reading skills. I was an English teacher, so I've done tons of reading and now I listen on audible.com to book after book. But when I'm reading a real book, I'd like to sometimes to get through them in order to write about it or combine thoughts on a subject. Whether my brain will want to cooperate at this late date, I'm not sure. I've looked at some speed-reading material and will have to look again because I can't make up my mind what to buy. Are you on Facebook or Pinterest? We should connect!
Thursday June 13th 2013, 12:37 AM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
I'm on Facebook, mostly. I have a Pinterest account, but rarely use it. Search for Sue Belzer.

Let me know what speed reading systems you're looking at, and I'll be happy to give you my completely untutored opinion, based solely on how the other systems seem to compare to my feeble memory of the Evelyn Wood one. How's that for a bargain?
Thursday June 13th 2013, 7:06 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
There's more than one Sue Belzer on Facebook! And I don't know where you live, so why don't you look me up: Meredith Childress? And, thanks, I can let you know which systems I'm looking at. I just bought "One Small Step Can Change Your Life" and will work my way slowly (ha!) through that first.
Thursday June 13th 2013, 10:27 AM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
Well, I don't seem to be able to find a Meredith Childress in Murfreesboro! How do we do this?
Thursday June 13th 2013, 11:19 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Why doesn't Meredith invite ALL the Sue Belzers to be her friend, adding the proviso that they must have commented of Visual Thesaurus?
Thursday June 13th 2013, 12:26 PM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
Oh, I guess I could do that, too! Good idea, Geoff--thanks.
Thursday June 13th 2013, 1:50 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Thanks, Geoff. I invite you to Friend me on FB!!! Cute~ Where do you live, Sue? I can look for you if I know where you live.
Thursday June 13th 2013, 3:19 PM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
Meredith, try looking for me by my email: sueb262@gmail.com
Thursday June 13th 2013, 3:51 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Me? I never refuse an invitation - well, hardly ever! I'll have to clear it with my wife first. Only kidding - she's from Chicago nearly 50 years ago, and has nothing against Tennesseans (?) as far as I know. Only kidding. Now all I have to do is find you out of the hundreds of Meredith Childresses.

I'm surprised we've got away with being off-piste here for so long.

Don't either of you have VT profiles? There's often loads of useful details there.

This morning I was invited by an old friend (American) who lives in SF to join him on Linkedin. That's life - months without a single invitation, then two in one day. And the day has a bit of life in it yet.
Thursday June 13th 2013, 4:27 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
I don't want to upset your wife, Geoff. Just kidding in any case as there's not usually much in common with people one meets on these websites. Sue and I have an interest in common and her father was born where I'm living...lots in common. :o)

If you want to get back on topic, I'll say that I did my copying this morning and have already planned another book to copy from tomorrow. I like copying and believe it's one of the ways to improve my writing. I've written quite a bit in the last few years--probably over 200,000 words. Now that I'm copying as well, it should be a bit more interesting.
Sunday June 23rd 2013, 1:26 PM
Comment by: Soph
I think it also helps to discuss the book! I find this article interesting...
Sunday June 23rd 2013, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Soph...Are you talking about discussing "One Small Step Can Change Your Life"?

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