For centuries, aspiring writers have spent hours copying out the work of masters in order to learn the secrets of being a great writer.
We’ve gone into detail before about what copywork is and how you can use it to benefit your writing. The idea behind this practice is that copying out sentences, passages, or even entire works of excellent writers will grant you an understanding of what makes the writing so good, therefore giving you those tools to use in your own writing.
As well as generally improving your writing, the practice of copywork can also help you find your voice. You know—that unique, can’t-put-your-finger-on-it quality that makes each person’s writing sound distinctly theirs.
You may be wondering how imitating the work of another writer can help you discover your voice. I’ll admit, it does seem a bit counterintuitive.
Copywork can help you find your voice by giving you greater control, letting you try on different styles without committing to them, and helping you find inspiration.
Incorporating copywork into your writing practice helps you model your writing after the masters and find your voice in the process.
“Copying is the highest form of flattery,” my parents would tell me whenever I was annoyed about my friends “copying” me. I didn’t believe them. (I was 8 years old at the time; can you blame me?)
But then I started college, and this “copying is flattery” came back to haunt me. My literature professors would tell me, “If you want to write like an academic, you need to read a lot of academic writing.”
So, essentially, if I wanted to do well in college literature courses, I had to figure out a way to copy these writers.Continue reading
Well, today is the day.
We’re not quite at the end of our time together, but it’s just around the corner.
And today is the last copywork excerpt I’ll have for you.
I wanted to find something that would bring you back a little bit, to those first few lessons in which we were learning about the writing, reading, and learning musings of some of the masters.
But now we can look at such an essay through the lens of 7 weeks studying the tools and foundations of writing.
Today’s lesson is an article that was printed in The New York Times, adapted from a talk that Joan Didion did at the University of California at Berkeley. No surprise, the article titled Why I Write is speaking with students about just that.
By the time she gave the talk, Didion was an established literary name, with huge success on her second novel, Play It As It Lays.
With such success, people were asking her to tell them how she wrote such masterful works? What was her background? What had she studied? How did she find her voice and style? Where did she come up with her ideas.
I’m sure the list goes on and on, as they are the questions any writer who has been doing this for awhile with any modicum of success has fielded.
They are questions you might have been asking yourself at the start of this course; or that others have asked you as they’ve seen the shifts happening.
While I did choose 2 excerpts (one longer, and then a concluding paragraph on her process for writing two particular novels), I highly recommend you read the whole article when you get a chance. It has been referenced for decades by writers as a succinct and guiding primer in how to write...and why you might.
Didion is an interesting creative. She often notes in interviews that one of her favorite writers and styles is Hemingway (not surprising in itself, as both came from a rather journalistic background), but her own writing is known for its use of symbolism and ornate poetic sentences.
As someone who wrote her university thesis paper on Milton’s Paradise Lost (and where today’s excerpt starts), the latter seems more in line with her own voice and style.
But what Didion is likely drawn to in Hemingway’s writing is also what she speaks about here. That “Iceberg Theory” we learned about earlier this week.
That you can adjust tone and style and even voice (a bit) when you know everything about the story. When you have imagined it and researched around it and spent serious thinking time basking in all the realities of it.
Didion’s descriptions of how her mind works, the way she imagines her novels before she ever starts really writing them, is a process that will be familiar to a number of writers.
Even with all that, the second excerpt is one of my favorite pieces of writing advice and commentary ever.
Which is why it is what I leave you with in all our copywork lessons.
You can research and plot and outline and know all sorts of things before you actually sit your bottom in a chair (or rock up to your standing desk, or whatever your preferred writing setup is), but the real reason we write because we are often trying to discover the story and truth ourselves.
We write to understand something we are curious about; something we don’t know the answer for.
The rest of the world then might be lucky enough to get a glimpse of your own mind’s process and ideas.
So go forward after these copywork lessons doing just that. Become the master writer you signed on to become.