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.
Copywork gives you the opportunity to feel what it is like to write in different styles. You don’t have to write a whole piece of your own in a certain style to find out if you like it or not—instead, you can try on another writer’s voice to find out if it feels anything like yourself.
You can identify styles and techniques that you would like to avoid and become aware of when you may be using them, as well as find out ways in which you enjoy writing.
Do you want to see what it’s like to write in a concise, direct style? Try copying out Hemingway.
If you’d like to feel out some flowery language, use Edgar Allan Poe for your copywork.
If you find yourself struggling with, for example, always using the same transitions in your writing, you can use copywork to explore how another, more accomplished writer handles their transitions. Not only will you discover new ways to structure them, but you’ll also get a firsthand glimpse into how they feel to write.
You can also use copywork to learn from accomplished writers who work within a specific niche that you would like to write in. Their work can not only give you an idea of what it’s like to write within that niche, but also how their voice is maintained within or contributes to the niche.
You may find that something you love to read feels inauthentic coming from your pen, or you may surprise yourself by discovering that you love to write in a way that you never expected. Exposing yourself to the many and varied ways in which words are put to paper is a good way to ensure that your voice is as true to you as possible—that you aren’t missing out on authentic expression due to not having tried out or come across a certain style.
Through copying other writers, you can try on extended metaphors, sample a smooth or choppy rhythm, and taste-test some new figures of speech—you only have to keep what you like.
Though many of us like to think that our voice comes across naturally when we write, the truth is that writing in one’s own voice is something that requires purpose and practice. Strong voices are carefully developed and edited, and while they certainly can be infused with personality, shouldn’t read exactly the way we think or speak (unless you’re dipping your toe into experimental genres).
Also, while in an ideal world we as writers would be able to let our voices loose all over whatever project we are working on, the reality is there are usually parameters that our writing needs to fit into, like having to represent a brand. Even if you’re writing a novel or your own blog posts, you likely still want it to be palatable to most readers.
Developing control over your voice—that is, being able to choose your words purposefully to achieve a certain effect—is a way that you can learn to express yourself even within any guidelines you may have, making your writing more interesting, and you more valuable as a writer. That’s why refining your voice is an important part of becoming a good writer and where copywork can help.
Copying out a text is like doing an in-depth study of that writing. It gives you greater recognition of different styles of writing, which should allow you to identify your own style and use it purposefully.
It also improves word choice and syntax by increasing your vocabulary and your knowledge of the ways in which words and phrases can be used. This gives you control by giving you the means to say exactly what you want to say, in the way that you want to say it.
It’s like switching from a broad-tipped to a fine-tipped pen: Suddenly, there’s a lot more you can do with the same amount of paper, and with much more precision. Giving yourself more control over your voice through its development can give it the means to be expressed, even within set parameters.
Copywork also teaches you how to imitate a voice that you really admire. You can take inspiration from other writers and learn to incorporate positive aspects of their voices into your own.
What makes each person’s voice uniquely theirs can be elusive, so copywork is a great way to do a close study of their work and will help you understand it much better.
A name you’ll recognize who attributes his success to this method is Jack London. After receiving piles of rejection letters, he conducted an extensive study of Rudyard Kipling’s writing, copying out his work longhand.
London’s goal was to absorb the cadences and rhythm of Kipling’s style, and incorporate them into his own writing. And it paid off—he credits his study of Kipling to his success. As he said later in his career:
“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.”
Despite the fact that London took so much inspiration from Kipling, no one would mistake his writing for the other’s. He applied the elements he admired of Kipling’s writing to his own, and ended up with a strong, distinctive voice that resonated with his readers.
And while I admire the confidence of anyone who is worried about ending up sounding just like Woolf or Dickens, there is no need to be concerned that imitating them will result in unoriginality.
Since your voice will never develop exactly the same as someone else’s, establishing an unoriginal voice through imitation of the greats is less of a risk than one might think.
Copywork is a proven method of becoming a better writer, and though it may seem counterintuitive, it can be a huge help in finding your own unique voice.
Practicing copywork makes knowing what goes into creating a strong voice less elusive, and gives you solid places to start as well as concrete goals to aim for.
And you don’t have to worry that you’ll end up sounding like someone else—being inspired by elements of other writers’ work can be just what you need to sound like yourself.
Copywork is like soaking your brain in the elements of great writing, and your own writing will only improve because of it.
The bottom line is that copywork will make you sound like yourself—but better.
As someone whose childhood was spent having books pried away from her at the dinner table, a future working with words was almost inevitable. Giselle studies English at the University of Calgary, and has worked as a writer/copyeditor for a newspaper, freelance proofreader/editor, and piano teacher. She hopes to one day relocate to Central America, but for now is making the most of snowy Calgary by getting out to the Rocky Mountains as much as she can, and spending cozy nights in learning how to play new instruments. Giselle is a content editor for Craft Your Content.