Ep 107: Learn from the Best: Copywork for Grownups

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Children used to be assigned copywork so they could practice penmanship and be exposed to great poetry, sayings, and passages from literature. But copywork’s not just for kids. You may recall from Episode 106 that Ben Franklin’s method is similar to copywork: He picked an essay or article he read and admired, took a few notes on each sentence—just a word or two—set aside the original, and some time later tried to recreate the original using the hints he had written down. Like I said, it isn’t exactly the same as copywork, but it’s close. Copywork is more meticulous than that. Like the scribes of old, a person devoted to copywork seeks to create an identical copy of the original text—an exact replicate. Why bother with copywork? You may ask, why would any ambitious, 21st-century adult writer bother with copywork? It may seem like a childish activity. Why revert to past-century elementary-school training when we’re adults seeking to produce a creative, contemporary body of work? Well, one advantage is that copywork forces close reading—it requires attentiveness to avoid skipping a word, missing a comma, or losing our place. That attentiveness is key to understanding a writer’s decisions. Francine Prose says in Reading Like a Writer: Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices. (16) As a writer, then, we're making decisions with each word choice, each exclamation point, each series of three phrases that produces the rhythm we want to achieve. We can pick up some of this simply by reading, as Prose herself does. She says, "I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made" (3). But when we copy out someone’s work, it’s even better, closer—we don’t miss a thing. We see it all, each and every decision, as it emerges in our writing notebook. Copywork documents the work of another writer so that the copyist is naturally, organically mentored by the original author. Prose points out that close attention to a text offers "the excitement of approaching, as nearly as you can hope to come, the hand and mind of the artist. It’s something like the way you experience a master painting, a Rembrandt or a Velasquez, by viewing it from not only far away but also up close, in order to see the brushstrokes" (30). By copying out the text, we're practically holding the pen of the author, forming letters as if we’re tracing the originals, to learn. That’s the goal: to learn. Who bothers with copywork? A website called The Art of Manliness claims that several well-known authors practiced copywork. They mention Jack London, who trained himself to be a better writer by copying out passages from Rudyard Kipling’s work. They report: 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.” They quote London as saying: 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. Self-taught by copying out the words of a writer he admired, London found his own voice and his own place in history. Copywork from memory You can take copywork to the next level following Robert Louis Stevenson’s method, which was similar to Ben Franklin’s, but more strict. It required a quick memory. He’d find a passage and read it twice, carefully.

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