Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why You Should Copy (A Modest Proposal)

I didn't cheat on exams when I was in high school. I restricted myself to reading novels tucked inside of textbooks. 

But once, in Grade 8, I was caught playing cards with a friend in Latin class. The teacher marched over to our desks, grabbed the cards from our hands and threw them out the window. Because our classroom was on the second floor, I regarded this gesture as highly melodramatic. Imagine: 52-card pick-up, on a sidewalk.

Instead of card games, if only I had learned the skill of copying in school. I know this might sound bad — peeking at another person's test, or copying phrases you've written on your arm. But, really, the practice of copying is not the least bit deceitful as long as you never attempt to pass off another person's words as your own.

What do I mean when I say copy? I intend it literally. You should take a published work — written by an author you respect and admire — and copy a portion of it, word for word. You don't have to do it in your own handwriting, although some will argue that you'll feel a deeper connection with the writer if you do. Me? I use my computer. I aim to copy about 1,000 words at a time. I should probably make the effort to do this once a week but right now I manage several times a year. (Hmmm, I feel a writing resolution looming!)

Your objective in copying is to learn about the voice of another author. When you copy the writing of a person you respect and admire, you absorb that person's sentence structure, cadence and rhythm. All of these aspects of that person's writing voice will become more deeply imbued in your own consciousness. 

Still feel nervous about the idea? You should know that Benjamin Franklin was a big advocate of the practice and, in fact, taught himself to write this way. But the question remains: whom should you copy? I suggest you look at your own bookshelves or perhaps go to a bookstore or a library and search for authors whose work you find deeply engaging. 

A friend of mine has copied the work of E.B. White; I have copied William Zinsser. The choice is up to you. But try to look for someone who is strong in an area in which you are weak. Looking to become better at description? Try Charles Dickens. Looking to become more conversational and personal? Consider Anne Lamott. Wanting to write short, concrete sentences? Ernest Hemingway is your man.

Of course, you can simply READ the work of these writers. But if you take the trouble to actually copy their writing you will increase the chances that your own writing will benefit. Part of what I like about this suggestion is that it's so easy. 

OK, I've now convinced myself. I'm going to start copying weekly. I just glanced at my bookshelves and grabbed Arthur Plotnik's book Spunk and Bite. Here goes:

Sometimes when I'm digging for the right word, I long for a terrier-like acuity, a canine's sensory gifts applied to language. Imagine if dogs ever figured out how to write — how to put that spunkiness and bite of theirs into literature. Think of those olfactory superpowers attuned to sniffing out metaphors or....


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

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.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday June 14th 2012, 4:05 AM
Comment by: Rosina W. (San Francisco Bay Area, CA)
*Wonderful* article, Daphne! I think this would be fun to do, say, once a month (or even once a week!) for a year, perhaps choosing authors at random from, say, a list of newly published works. Great way to get one's feet wet (or let them soak!) in any number of writing styles. Thank you for your insights!

On a completely different topic, I've recently come back to the Spelling Bee when I can carve out the time. There's another regular "Bee" speller ("Mike in MA") who has acknowledged me (please see the "last 30 days" list), and I'd like to say hi to him too. Is there a way for me to do this? (Hi Mike ~ Good to "see" you again on the Bee!) Is there a way we can share email addresses, Facebook, etc.?

Thanks once again ~
Rosina Wilson
San Rafael, CA
Thursday June 14th 2012, 8:01 AM
Comment by: Bartosz M. (Gdańsk Poland)
I think copying someone's work to gain the benefits is bad if you want to build some image of yourself and expect right reactions from people. If you are not concerned about your image in the eye's of others - then copy. The problem of Western civilized world - build image and complain that people don't understand your true self. Money, money, money, empty honey...
Thursday June 14th 2012, 8:30 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I want to thank you you for giving us clues for suggestions for what reason we should copy whom. Even only for handwriting practice secession we can do some copying and of course for a short term. That's my opinion.
I do not think by maintaining the nature of "copy from some one else's stuff" you will be able turn to a famous writer/editor/teacher. Even if you publish a book by copying a bulk portion of it from another writer's account or views-- your compiled book is not going to sell out and very soon you will face financial hardship.
I am expressing my opinion for this controversil topic in this crude way, because I have observed lots of tricks in copycat business.
Thursday June 14th 2012, 9:10 AM
Comment by: Arnold P. (Summerville, SC)
Hi Daphne

Wonderful, just wonderful. How clever and insightful is your article. I love the idea and I will certainly attempt to practice your suggestion. I am not a native English speaker, but I like to write things here and there to improve my writing.

I live in the USA, where I studied university and seminary, but I was born in Brazil; consequently I speak Portuguese. I also learned Spanish, and have also studied a little bit of French and Italian.

It makes perfect sent to copy with the purpose of learning the writer's "sentence structure, cadence and rhythm." This is very powerful because our mind gives back to us the very thing it receives from us through our daily habits.

Have a great day
Arnold Pessoa
Moncks Corner, South Carolina
Thursday June 14th 2012, 9:55 AM
Comment by: Noe C. (Curitiba Brazil)
Liked a lot, including Plotnik's quote at end.

Well, now I'll copy Daphne! Bye!
Thursday June 14th 2012, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I'm a big advocate of copying: it trains not only the eye and the ear but also the muscle memory. (Aha--so that's what a semicolon feels like!)

At the same time, I'm careful not to follow the example of Pierre Menard in Jorge Luis Borges's short story “Pierre Menard, Author of El Quixote.”
Thursday June 14th 2012, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the kind words to those who liked the idea. I'm a bit puzzled by those who responded negatively, though. The purpose of copying is NOT to become a famous writer OR to make more money. It's to learn from others. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. In fact, it's how our civilization has always advanced....
Thursday June 14th 2012, 3:42 PM
Comment by: David D.
I have known a number of fine painters who considered it very advantageous to go to the Louvre or any fine museum, and (with permission) copy old masters. A painter may look at a stroke and a style, but not quite understand it - until he/she actually makes that stroke, attempts that style. The painter will improve his own work and I fully believe that a writer will also improve his own work by following this technique.
I fully support Daphne's suggestion and am also puzzled by those who responded negatively. They miss the point ...
Thursday June 14th 2012, 3:55 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
People used to keep "commonplace books" to copy passages they wanted to keep close. The only example I have of my grandmother's writing is a copy of a Victorian poem written by someone else. She died in 1918, when my mother was a small child, so her literacy became a touchstone for me, a bookish girl, in the 40s and 50s. One of my grandchildren learned to read and write by copying favorite stories that her mother read to her. At first--when I saw her toss several less than perfect efforts at "Once upon a time"--I thought she would become too frustrated. But it was her own idea, and she persevered. She still keeps a journal. When we cut, paste, and share on Facebook, we're sharing in the community of literacy, but how much better to write out the words! As you say, not only the ideas, but the cadences, the traces of that other brain's meanderings, make silvery trails in our minds, too. We become connected when we share language with each other. On that note, Rosina, I play Scrabble with Mike from Massachusetts on Facebook (met him on Spelling Bee, too). I'll clue him in, and he can put something on his profile page. Just click on his name. Joyce
Tuesday June 19th 2012, 11:36 AM
Comment by: bianca T. (montefusco Italy)
Hi one and all! I read Daphne's article, which I find amusing. I am a bit puzzled by those who are critical: why? She doesn't say: "Ok, people, the way to make big bucks [is that expression still used? living in a non-English speaking country for over 3o yrs has its drawbacks!]is to copy a masterpiece and pass it off as your own!" She just says that that is a way to start practicing! It should be easier to go off on your own after! Geeeeeeeeeeeez!
No lightheartedness!
Good article Daphne. I think I even get your weekly mail. which I enjoy.

Saluti from sunny Italy to one and all.

and I take part in the spelling bee once in a while!
Tuesday October 16th 2012, 7:30 AM
Comment by: Najjiyya A. (Sacramento, CA)
Thank you Daphne, I have read writing that I've liked and thought to myself, "I wish I could write this way". I will use this technique to help myself.

Christine A.
Monday October 7th 2013, 5:03 AM
Comment by: Frederick E.
Hi Daphne, as u can see, my response is exactly ONE year after the previous one, I just pray u have a 'buzzer' on your contributions to draw ur attention to "late arrivals", yet as we all know, good writing (advise) has no sell by date, I hope u C this, Because, one of my FAVOURITE copyable writers happen to be Daphne Gray-Grant, what I copy a lot are the times when you copy other great minds with something worthwhile to contribute to copy-able quotes. Just u keep supplying Copy-able prose and my collection will grow. I even re-read them, strue!
Frederick
Freddie.e@vodamail.co.za
Monday October 7th 2013, 9:43 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi Frederick, Yes, I have a buzzer and was alerted when your comment appeared. I am humbled and flattered that you copy me but want to suggest that you pick some BETTER writers! Also, keep in mind that you should be copying someone you really want to emulate. So, unless you are also writing a blog, you should work to identify someone who does the same kind of writing as you. Fiction authors should copy other fiction authors, report writers other report writers etc. That said, I am so GLAD you have the copying habit. Well done! Best, -daphne

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.