“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.
Being in a Masters program in Literature, I buried myself in journal article after academic journal article, hoping that through osmosis, I could write as intelligently as some of the smartest people in my field.
At the same time, I was reading great fiction, too. I discovered some of my favorite writers, like Jennifer Egan, James Joyce, and Kazuo Ishiguro, wishing that I could somehow sound as poignant as them without the years and years of writing experience.
Six years of schooling later, and let me tell you something—simply reading these writers didn’t make me magically write better. Sure, I could construct a hoity-toity sentence better than I could previously … but I still didn’t sound like the writer I wanted to be.
While trying to improve my own writing, I opted to read a lot. And yes, reading a lot helps you as a writer, but I realized that the only way I could actually sound like those writers was through copying their sentences. (I’ll admit, though, this was a realization I only figured out later, after I’d established my copying habit.)
Now, I would never plagiarize another writer and copy their work to pass it off as my own. That would mean committing a major academic crime. And just being downright unethical.
Instead, as a way of preparing for my term papers, I would type out quotes from articles I read, and passages from books I wrote about. I spent hours typing out these quotes, word by word, punctuation mark by punctuation mark; I would type out pages and pages of quotes by writers I planned on referencing in my paper.
Of course, at the time, I did this mostly because it made me feel like I totally wasn’t procrastinating on my term paper. (Spoiler alert: I was.) It was an easy way to feel like I was writing, without actually doing any of my own writing.
But what I also started to notice in my writing was that it sounded like the scholars I wanted to be like when I was a lowly graduate student.
What I didn’t quite see at the time was that I was doing a practice called copywork, something the writing legends had been doing for centuries.
Copywork means exactly what it sounds like: You take a piece of great writing, and you copy it down, usually with a pen, but it could also be typed.
Copying down what other people have written helps develop the connection between your brain, your pen, and your paper—essentially, the formation of words, sentences, and language. It helps with making the tiny details and the nuances of great writing feel like something you’re creating yourself, because you are. Or at least, you’re mechanically producing good writing with your hand.
But why would anyone spend their time writing down other people’s words when they could be creating their own?
Historically, people did copywork for practical reasons. They wanted a copy of a book, so they had to copy the book by hand. The Bible, for example, was a popular text to copy, and those who rewrote the Bible found themselves feeling closer to the text itself. It was also a common way to teach school kids how to write, especially at the turn of the 20th century (and it’s still something that many parents who homeschool their children do).
The main reason anyone would spend their time doing copywork, though, was simply to become a better writer themselves.
Famous writers used copywork practices to develop their own art. Writers like Jack London and Hunter S. Thompson rewrote, by hand, the novels and poems that they admired, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
It also gives creatives the opportunity to explore new ideas through other people’s words, and learn about yourself, by copying it down by hand. Artist Morgan O’Hara spent time copying the U.S. Constitution by hand, and as a result, felt a deeper connection with a text that dictates her life in the United States. Had she not taken the time to copy down the Constitution, she may not have gained this insight on that text.
Creating a new piece of writing is hard if you haven’t equipped yourself with the language and skills to write well—and these skills can be honed and developed with a little bit of copywork.
Yes, copywork sounds like something that requires a bit of work. And it does—by the nature of this practice, you have to sit for a period of time and write. But let’s be honest with ourselves: Anything that results in helping you improve as a writer (or as a person) isn’t going to come without putting in some effort.
The best thing about copywork, though, is that the writing you’re doing isn’t necessarily generating new ideas. You don’t have to wait for creative inspiration to hit in order to feel like writing. Instead, the writing is already done for you, which means you won’t have to use your mental energy for ideas; instead, you can channel this energy into establishing a writing habit.
With a copywork practice in place, you’ll be writing on a regular basis in a way that doesn’t cause extra stress or pressure. This habit can train your brain to see writing as a no-pressure practice in itself, making it easier to return to your own writing with an ease of mind.
If you’re experiencing writer’s block, or your day is so busy that your brain can’t handle coming up with one more good idea, you can still do a bit of copywork and hit your daily writing quota.
Once you’ve practiced copywork on a consistent basis, you can return to your own personal writing practice with a renewed sense of confidence. But how do you even get started?
Grab a notepad, a couple pens, some great literature or news articles, and you’re ready to rock ‘n’ roll.
As I noted previously, when I was in graduate school, I wanted to sound like the scholars who wrote important things about James Joyce or Jennifer Egan. When you first decide to try copywork to improve your writing, it’s important to take some time to figure out the best reading materials for you.
Consider a few things: Are you trying to improve your language? Your use of metaphors? Your ability to craft long-winded, yet impactful, sentences? These questions can help you seek out the writers you want to sound like. If you read a piece of writing and think, “I want to sound like this,” then that’s a great place to start.
You can also pick reading materials based on a theme that you enjoy, or a theme you want to get better at writing on. Are you working on writing more personal essay-type pieces? Check out the Essays & Criticisms section of Longreads for essays that have a more personal essay feel, or the Editors’ Picks.
It’s important to consider fiction when seeking good copywork material. Famous writers have cited that novels were inspirations for their own work. Author Gabriel García Márquez said novels like James Joyce’s Ulysses and writings by Virginia Woolf influenced his own ideas of how to write interior monologue, which is a style of writing commentary (and something that applies to nonfiction writing, too!).
If you’re not sure exactly what to start with, there’s plenty of people experienced with copywork who have great pieces to recommend.
In my own practice of copywork, I opted to type out the quotes I liked. I often did this because, quite honestly, I was usually behind on a deadline for a term paper and felt too stressed out to disconnect my fingers from my keyboard.
But when I worked further in advance, I had the time to write things out by hand.
The practice of writing things out longhand, with just a pen and paper, can actually be quite freeing, and definitely less distracting. With the internet available wherever you’re on your laptop and have WiFi, you can click away and read something else the second you start to feel stuck on your words.
It’s also a way for your brain to connect even more with the ideas you’re writing down, making it easier to remember what you’ve written and problem solve as well (a.k.a., writing things down can help you get through writer’s block!).
Successful writers like Julia Cameron (author of The Artist’s Way) practice something called Morning Pages. She essentially sits down and writes 750 words (or 3 pages ) longhand in the morning, soon after waking up. Doing this practice helps free your mind from whatever is stressing you out, but it also gets your creative juices flowing.
When sitting down to start your own copywork practice, it’s a good idea to begin with the traditional mode of writing on pen and paper, similar to the Morning Pages practice. This habit can also help you make the space for a writing habit separate from creating your own content online.
A lot of the reason why this strategy of copying down quotes impacted my writing was because I was doing it on a near daily basis. Establishing some type of daily habit, whether it’s reading or just doing something creative, helps you make the space for developing new skills.
With a daily copywork habit, you’ll need to have something to read—which, yes, means you’ll start reading on the daily, too.
An easy way to establish a reading habit that works in your busy life is to find some short stories by writers whom you admire. There are plenty of reasons why it’s worth it to read short stories, like the satisfaction that comes from finishing a story, but ultimately, these are some of the best pieces of writing to work into your daily copywork habit.
As anyone who has tried to establish a daily habit knows, though, it can often take at least three weeks of consistently doing the habit before it really takes hold and feels like a necessary part of your day.
Taking an online course in copywork or having an accountability buddy (or both) can help you find ways to successfully establish this habit in your life.
As children, we copy without even thinking about the consequences. We take wax paper and place it over an image we want to draw, tracing the outlines and the details meticulously. We want to create beautiful things, and we acknowledge (unbeknown to us) that creating beautiful things means to emulate other beautiful things.
As adults, we’ve abandoned these ideas in place of valuing individual creativity over anything else. We must create the most original, most unique piece of writing anyone’s ever come across (which, in reality, is not something anyone can achieve easily). But we also want to be able to create these things right now, without remembering the unique and creative pieces of writing that came before us.
Except, you know, we’re okay with copying other people’s recipes when we need to cook dinner. Or playing other people’s songs on the guitar to show others how skilled we are at an instrument. These “socially acceptable” ways of copying aren’t even thought twice about as copying and stealing ideas.
After reading dozens of interviews, I’ve never heard of a writer who doesn’t have a literary influence of some kind. Writers of all genres are often avid readers—whether they’re reading newspaper articles, blog posts, novels, or non-fiction books. When you read that much, and that often, it will bleed into your own writing, whether you intend it to or not.
Take a page out of your favorite book (maybe not literally, but print out a digital version, if you can), and copy those words down exactly how they appear. In time, you’ll start to see your own writing take on the qualities of the books and articles you love to read.
And who knows? Maybe someday, a writer will be copying your words onto the page during their daily copywork routine.
Julia Hess graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a Master of Arts degree in English. She has worked as a college writing tutor and instructor, a contractor at a major tech company, and a freelance editor and writer. An avid podcast listener, Julia provides editorial feedback, consultation, and detailed show notes for CYC’s podcast, Writers Rough Drafts.