How To Write Your Best Story Ever With One Epic Exercise
You want to be a true original. All writers do. But what if you could write like somebody else? Who would you choose?
Imagine a writing exercise that could make you write like that person. Well, maybe not exactly like them. But what if this exercise could refine your style, develop your voice, and deepen your grasp of narrative structure?
Would you do it?
I did. Every morning for one year.
Now I want to tell you exactly what happened to my writing as a result. And why you’re going to want to try it. (Spoiler: I ended up writing my best story ever.)
My Morning Writing Routine
First, a quick note on how I came to use this epic exercise. I’d been a morning writer ever since I was a single mom with three kids and a full-time job teaching elementary school. At 5:30am I was seated at my desk, writing absolute crap. But hey, at least it was every morning. I struggled to get better, but didn’t really know how. I felt like I was swimming in mud. One day, I started to worry: what if I never got significantly better?
I’d always valued learning through imitation. Maybe it comes from a life of athletics. You watch. You copy. You watch. You copy. Over and over. Until the topspin backhand, the corner kick, the butterfly save is embedded in your muscle memory.
I wondered: Could I learn to write the same way? Was there a way to copy writers in order to become a better writer?
Centuries ago, apprentice painters would spend years and years copying the work of masters in order to learn advanced techniques. In the Middle Ages, monks copied the Bible by hand to fully understand its contents. Today Buddhist monks still copy sutras by hand.
My research started to uncover writers who also copied. Hunter Thompson copied every page of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Jack London swore by copying. He taught himself how to write by copying every page of Rudyard Kipling’s books in longhand. Why? He truly believed that this copywork would fill his own writing with the same rhythms and vibrant phrases as Kipling’s. After publishing his much-loved novels, London attributed his success to this copywork:
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.
Below, I’m going to show you three alternative copywork exercises used by Robert Louis Stevenson and Benjamin Franklin and Billy Collins, respectively. However, when I started this experiment, I took the simplest approach possible:
- I picked a book I would have LOVED to have written. I started with the magnificent novel by Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum. My hardcover copy is 521 pages long.
- I started each morning by copying Gunter’s novel for 20-30 minutes in handwriting. I used several thick hardcover notebooks.
- When time was up, I didn’t reflect on what I’d written, I simply moved onto my own writing for another 2 hours.
What Happened to My Writing (And How Your Writing Will Change Forever, Too)
To some of you, the idea of learning to write fiction through imitation might run counter to your notions of creativity. I’ve met writers who refuse to even read fiction while they are trying to create their own stories. They fear they’ll be influenced right out of their own voice. They fear mistaking other writers’ ideas as their own. If you are this type of writer, I don’t have a hope of convincing you to try copywork.
But if you’re open to trying copywork, you’re in for some exciting changes to your writing. Here are some of the changes I took note of while copying Gunter Grass’ amazing novel, The Tin Drum:
AFTER 2 WEEKS:
- My sentence structure started to become more versatile
- My movement from paragraph to paragraph and scene to scene gained more energy as I engaged in less play-by-play narration
- I was more keenly aware of the rhythm and cadence of my writing
- I felt an early sense of increased confidence, particularly in spending the space my narrative moments needed because I saw and felt the space Grass spent in his novel (in other words, I took the time to explore a significant moment on the page, going deeper, rather than feeling anxious that I might bore the reader)
AFTER 1 MONTH:
- I found myself controlling the dramatic effect of my sentence structure
- Each moment in my scenes seemed to weld more meaning and emotion, creating more energy overall
- Many of my bad habits had disappeared (overuse of certain words, overuse of the same type of interior thinking from my characters, tendency to structure scenes the same way, etc.)
- My story kept a stronger thread of character yearning because I was absorbing all the nuanced ways Gunter Grass demonstrated Oscar’s yearning
AFTER 6 MONTHS:
- I found myself able to hold more narrative ideas in my head at one time, which was hugely beneficial since I was writing a novel
- My command of subtext increased, both in my dialogue and in how descriptions mirrored my character’s inner landscape
- My gut feeling about how to structure my paragraphs and chapters (including when to start and end each one) heightened, just from absorbing Gunter’s narrative rhythms
- I have a habit of doing a “good sentence” dance at my desk when I write a sentence that expresses something raw and honest from deep within me–these dances became more and more regular!
AFTER 1 YEAR:
- My voice, my voice, my voice!! I found my voice! Paradoxically, it arose after tediously copying out another writer’s voice
- My relationship with my manuscript changed dramatically: we went from feeling like awkward acquaintances to feeling like loving dance partners
- My sense of what the narrative needed had grown acute and almost hyper-perceptive
- My descriptions, my word choice, my imagery, my turns of phrase–they all seemed to have become more fresh and original than anything I’d written previously
- My perception of narrative rhythm had moved from the sentence level to the paragraph level to the level of the entire novel–and this perception included technical elements like character arc, plot, etc.
Of course, I’ve saved the most awesome sign that my writing changed for the end of this article! Cue the long drumroll…
Other Powerful Approaches to Copywork
The method described above is the simplest approach to copywork. To me, it’s also the most meditative. Over time, I looked forward to my morning copywork because it became somewhat entrancing. Yet, I was absorbing incredible techniques of craft–in my head and in my heart and in my gut. There are some other powerful approaches to copywork that I’ve started to experiment with, and I thought you might like to try them as well (although I recommend you try the simple approach first).
The Robert Louis Stevenson Approach
Robert Louis Stevenson’s approach to copywork was similar to my simple approach, except for one key thing: it relied on his memory. Here were his steps:
- He picked a passage from a writer he admired.
- Carefully, he read the passage twice.
- Without looking at the passage again, he then try to write it out word for word from his memory.
Stevenson was not good at the method when he first started, and he struggled to copy the passages correctly. However, he could eventually copy out long passages from memory. The principle underlying this method is that it made him an incredibly attentive reader, and sure enough, Stevenson became known for his incisive word choice and exquisite turns of phrase.
The Benjamin Franklin Approach
About this time I met with an odd volume of The Spectator – I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it.
With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again.
I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and complete the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language.
-The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin’s approach to copywork was similar to Stevenson’s, except that he made notes on the piece first:
- He read an essay.
- He made notes for each sentence he read.
- He put the essay away and looked only at his notes.
- He then tried to replicate the essay in his own words (sometimes he jumbled up his notes to make the exercise more challenging).
- He compared his version to the original.
I’m just now in the process of trying this approach. If I gain any insights, especially to how it can be tailored to the fiction writing process, I’ll certainly share them with you.
So far I have discovered a real benefit to this method.
I tried it with an Annie Proulx short story, “The Half-skinned Steer” from her collection, Close Range. The notes I made about each sentence really forced me to think–in terms of craft and narrative function–what exactly each sentence was doing. My notes became a list of attributes and functions that I then had to replicate.
I was already familiar with this method from music, in which you listen to a song you like and catalogue its attributes (e.g., 120 bpm, four-on-the-floor drumbeat, harmony in E minor). Then you re-create a new song using the catalogue. You could use this method for writing practice as well, taking your catalogue of attributes and creating a new story with them.
As the above quote from his Autobiography indicates, Franklin made his particular form of copywork more interesting with additional challenges: sometimes he turned prose into poetry and back again.
I haven’t tried this method yet, but I have at times used Jane Yolen’s idea: you take a passage of your own story and you line up the sentences as if they were a poem. This way, you gain a unique sense of the rhythms and dramatic structure, as well as the imagery.
The Billy Collins Approach
We’ve probably all had this experience: we read an amazing, masterful writer and get discouraged. “What can I possibly contribute to the world of literature when there are already writers like this?”
This is what the poet Billy Collins thought when he read Wallace Stevens.
But Collins used the old notion, If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. He copied Stevens. He copied his work and then he attempted to write poems in the style of Stevens. He imitated Stevens over and over.
As a result, he developed his own powerful voice.
This kind of style imitation should, in my opinion, form a part of every writer’s practice. If only for that: practice. Imitating style is a great way to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone.
I’ve often found powerful story solutions but rewriting a chapter opening, for example, in the style of another writer. By the time I’m finished revising the passage, it is fully transformed into my own original work and my voice. The imitation exercise acts as a scaffold to help me reach a new elevation.
- Pick a passage from a writer/story you love. Or, if you’re bold, imitate an entire short story.
- Create a new passage or story using your own story ideas, but write it in the style of the other writer. Challenge yourself as if you were an artist trying to pass off your painting as an authentic Rembrandt. See how closely you could get to “fooling” a reader into thinking it was a new story by the writer. (Obviously it’s for your own private practice, though.)
That last change to my writing that I mentioned earlier?
I got an amazing agent with Westwood Creative Artists, then Douglas & McIntyre published my novel, The Heaviness of Things That Float, which is now a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. It was clearly my best story ever.
All this changed during my year of copywork. Coincidence? Maybe. But I don’t think so.
My final advice to you is: Start small.
Have fun thinking of the novel or short story you would have love to have written yourself. Once you have your book and your notebook ready, start with five or ten minutes a day of copywork.
I know it can be hard to make yourself do copywork when you’d perhaps rather be writing your novel, but the rewards are too plentiful and significant to not invest this time.
Copywork is also a fantastic way to get back into writing if you’ve been away from it for a while.
I’ve picked Zadie Smith for my next copywork. Who would you pick to copy? Leave me a comment below!
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