The Copy Trick to Leveling Up Your Writing

(Image: One of the polygraphs used by Thomas Jefferson, a portable version —… Neat “machine.” I saw it in person visiting Monticello once and was excited because I’d just read we know what we seem to know about Rome thanks to Cicero, who seems to have made copies of all his correspondence. Jefferson has always been a hero of mine, and the more I learn the more important he seems to be, even as other figures diminish in my eyes, but that’s another blog, of course. For this post I remembered Jefferson’s polygraph, as it literally penned two copies of what you were writing.)

I read once that you tend to write like you’re reading, meaning if you’re reading Clive Barker and writing at the same time you might be surprised to see your writing resembling Clive Barker, for example. And then I found it to be true! We pick up little mannerisms, sometimes, from those around us, and so on, but it seems true enough that any of us might be liable to mimic or pick things up just as we might influence those we hang with in the same way. But when it comes to writing this is kind of neat. In fact you can use it. For one thing, you might not jump around too much in your reading if you’re cranking out those last few chapters of your own book, at least not too wildly in terms of style of what you’re reading. And it’s a neat way to inform, guide, and influence your own writing — Read someone you admire the writing of while you write or edit. (The larger lesson is READ! Those who read a lot never feel like they do, those who don’t care to read much might not make the best writers, obviously, right?)

But what I really wanted to share was this tip I picked up along the way, that if you like a particular writer, and you might not even be fully able to put your finger on why, do this exercise of simply reading their stuff and copying it. Write it out, word-for-word. It’s an amazing little exercise and puts you in the driver seat of that writer. Kind of magic. Whenever I’ve done this (not as much as I’d like to yet) I’ve come away with ah-has. Aspects of that author’s writing seem to present themselves in a way more easily decipherable. Really a neat little trick, especially if you have favorite writers.

I’m a big proponent of —- not “copying” in a plagiarism sense, obviously, but copying and using models to learn as a very fast type of pedagogy. Before I ever read or had a copy of CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style) I simply learned the parts of a book by duplicating what I saw in professionally-published books. When we wrote our own songs back in the day, in my high school heavy metal band (my wife is rolling her eyes), at times we’d emulate another song, but the most original-sounding stuff came when we combined two songs as influences. In fact an exercise I usually give clients when I’m doing their cover design is to find a handful of covers they really like (even if not sure why) in their genre, that seem to be selling well (I usually share a link to the Amazon bestseller page for that category), and it jump-starts our discussion of how they’d like their book to be. Elements need to conform to their genre, anyway, and these evolve at least slight over time, even if the basics remain the same. Derek Murphy is THE source of good advice on cover design, btw.

Getting a client project going starts slowly sometimes, as I seek to “get inside their head” and share the vision they have. Sharing comparable books (and covers) they like helps me greatly to arrive where they are. And once we have met up in terms of vision carefully, we (I) can then proceed confidently.

John Mellencamp said in an interview I once read, “Show me an artist who’s 100% original and I’ll kiss his ass.” And while the little learning trick / exercise of copying another’s writing verbatim for the insights, not to use, of course, yields neat results, and copying is a learning jump-starter, it also leads to the subject of “transformative versus derivative” work, which is vital for any writer (especially ghostwriters) to understand, which I’ll make a note… (done) to blog on at some point.