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?