A Simple Cure For Writer’s Block: Copying The Greats
All good writers read, because only by reading do you figure out how to take all those great ideas and deep thoughts and transpose them correctly on paper: those turns of phrase, the perfect delivery of a simile, the economy of a declarative sentence. We read these and then, hopefully, we begin to pick up the tricks from the best of the best and then execute them ourselves.
But an even better way to learn from what we read is to copy it, word for word.
Yes, copying is clearly a taboo, but this isn’t to say you’re going to do it and then pass the work off as your own. Instead, try re-writing one of your favorite texts as an exercise in unblocking creativity. Then see what you, yourself, can make afterward.
For musicians this makes a lot more sense — learning covers is almost a requirement for anyone who’s new to the medium. But for many writers, it’s harder to see the utility in duplicating something they admire.
Maybe it’s because when you learn a song you like, there is some skill to it. You have to know how to play those chords or emulate that beat. And when you have it figured out, you can do it over and over and it’s pretty fun. Playing it for friends can be an impressive feat.
But when you just write out a great story or the first paragraph of a classic book, there isn’t really anything impressive about it. You are a human copy+paste function.
But there is a world of difference between seeing those words on the page and watching them appear on your screen or paper. When you start to reproduce well-written passages, you’ll see what makes them well-written: how the words were dropped in or moved around to hit that exact rhythm, convey that exact emotion. You’ll begin to see why they chose a comma instead of a period or how they decided right there they should start a new paragraph.
Here’s one thing about writing that we tend to forget: for many writers we like, it’s not the breadth of their vocabulary, but how they use it. When you start transcribing, you’ll see that they’re not working with some language you can’t grasp — they’re merely taking the words you know and figuring out the best way to use them.
Like how so many songs are just a few simple chords, you’ll start to notice how much of the “magic” of writing is simply taste and delivery. Copying books or articles or poems may be less fun than learning “Imagine” on piano, but you will see them not just as a reader but also as a writer.
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