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Copy other authors by hand to improve your own writing

My beginner gains are coming to an end, I’ve realized. In writing.

Now, the progress I have made, I owe to 750words.com, nanowrimo.org, and a collection of precious friends—gems, really.

I’ve written words on words on words, and I’ve mastered the art of the brain dump: I can get shit on paper.

But I want to think about quality now too, and I want to practice deliberately. And avoid spinning my wheels in place.

Well, here’s my first deliberate practice adventure.

I was reading The Boron Letters, letters from a legendary copywriter, Gary Halbert, to his son. In one letter, he tells his son to copy the best ads by hand:

From now on, for the next 4 or 5 months I want you to do this same thing with other ads and DM pieces. But I don’t want you to just copy any old ad or DM piece. I want you to copy only the best.

Now, here’s why I want you to do all this: you see, what happens when you actually write out a good ad in your own handwriting is that the words, the flow, the sentence structure, the sequence of information, and everything else about the writing of that ad becomes a part of you.

This isn’t just an empty experience. This is a way of internally imprinting on your mind and body, the process of good writing. If you do this often enough, you will soon have a deep inside out” understanding of what it takes and what it feels like to write a good piece of copy.

After some research, I found other writers do this, sometimes simple copying, sometimes more sophisticated exercises.

Ben Franklin did tons of copywork. So did Jack London, who wrote The Call of the Wild. And this novelist, Jen Manuels, who did simple copying every morning for a year and wrote up how her writing changed for the better.

This morning, I tried it myself, with A Bit of Sully in Your Sweet” by Cheryl Strayed. Beautiful piece, my heart clings to every word.

I was so excited to get started, since this was a new way of experiencing an author I love.

Some choice thoughts:

  • My handwriting sucks.

  • Two hours in, and only 40% through the piece.

  • Wow, Strayed’s sentence lengths are thought provoking. She has sections with long af sentences, and then sections with short sentences, that seem like intentional breaks for the reader. It’s not often long sentence, short sentence, instead it’s section of long sentences, section of short sentences, which I noted.

  • She used TWO instances of anaphora.

  • Ah, the art of the one sentence paragraph for emphasis.

  • She leaves out commas in places where I thought grammatically it would be required:

One day about a year after Mr. Sugar and I moved in together, a woman called our house and asked to speak to Mr. Sugar.

WHY IS THERE NO COMMA AFTER ONE DAY?!? She omits commas the same way in many places. It give me the sense that her writing is talking fast”.

  • She often uses a sentence structure like,

All of that was a pile of shit now, I realized as I collapsed onto one of the dueling couches.

X, Y said.

  • Every few paragraphs, she’ll do something more colorful in the middle of her telling, like:

Two people who leapt from the same pond to miraculously swim down parallel streams.

  • How do her long artsy sentences compare to the short sentences of the Internet/copywriters? Should I ignore her style, or does her beautiful rhythm have a place on the Internet?

In conclusion

I can already see how doing copywork would improve my word choice and rhythm in the long run, both of which are important. I can do some copywork every week, to start.

In the long run, I’ll need even more targeted practice. There’s more to writing than word choice and rhythm. But this is a start.

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