Learning by Doing: How Copying Good Writers Can Make You Better

Snail close upWe always want our creative works to be original, but we must all acknowledge that we draw influence from other writers. Studying the style of writers you love can help you understand and improve your own style. There are many ways of learning from other writers. The simple exercise of copying a passage is among the most effective.

The process of copying a passage is self explanatory: find a part of another writer’s work that inspires you – or perhaps one that makes your skin crawl for reasons you can’t quite figure it out. Copy the piece by hand or by keyboard. Do it again. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you start to get a feel for the other writer’s cadence.

It is much easier to incorporate elements of your favorite writer’s style into your writing once you’ve copied passages that they’ve written. Even if you can’t exactly put words on what charms you about a certain sentence structure, you’ll be better able to aim for that effect once you know how it feels to write it.

Copying can also be a marvelous way to get out of a creative slump. It feels like very little mental effort: all we have to do is flip open a favorite book and pick a passage at random. We don’t need to think about ideas or how we’re arranging them, but there is something about the process of going through the motions of writing that gets us arranging ideas on our own.

Many writers repeat T.S. Eliot’s claim that good writers imitate and great writers steal, but too few writers take it to heart and practice the gentle art of copying. Just like visual artists study the techniques of the great masters by copying their pieces, writers can hone their skills by setting their own hands to the words and phrases of their favorite artists.