Let’s begin by re-assessing the nature of the title. Of course, this is not going to be an article from a writer condoning the use of another’s material so as to further your own financial and critical success.
Wikipedia defines Plagiarism as: “…the “wrongful appropriation” and “stealing and publication”of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas or expressions” and the representation of them as one’s own original work.”
We are not here today to try to claim that the above would be good behaviour, not least the behaviour of a true gentleman/gentlewoman! In fact, we are more interested in the practice part.
The method is called Copywork. In its purest form it is just copying or writing out by hand from a written model. The focus is on improving your own writing by imitating other writers who you deem to have a style or ability worth trying to emulate.
Once upon a time in America, this was the way that children were taught to write. Even though it has now been replaced by more productive and child-specific methods, there is still very much a place for it in the advancement of writing ability in people of all ages. Before the invention of the computer, or even the printing press, anything that you wanted to keep, you would have to copy by hand. This meant that many great authors were forced to copy work, regardless of choice. Therefore many greats, as we shall see, were champions of copy work long before it was in vogue.
“Why should I do this?” I hear you cry. Well, I think you might be surprised. Here’s the Itchy Quill run-down of the benefits of Copywork, from children to adults.
Demonstration of Structure
Many different styles have been introduced throughout the long history of the English language, from Gothic to Post-Modern, Romantic to meta-fiction, and they all have their own unique traditions and subtleties that can sometimes not appear obvious. The best way to learn is by doing, and so transcribing examples of them will give you a much greater understanding of the relationship between form and Lexis in a specific writer’s work, so that the mysteries of literary customs will be yours to harness. Will you use this new found power for good or evil?
If you have the drive and motivation, there really is no limit to what you can try to copy. With a wealth of wonderful prose in the English language, you are positively drowning in a vast ocean of words and stylistic whales.
For a greater understanding of the ‘Western canon’, you could try your hand at imitating some Austen. Are you more of a 20th century reader? Dabble in some Woolf, Kerouac or Vonnegut. Prefer contemporary fiction? King and Adichie are but a start. Some writers write with simplicity, some are long-winded and majestic, some just blunt and crude; yet they all have their merits and their conventions.
The point is that each author has a style that fits a greater period of writing, and to truly understand the subtle intricacies of such a writer and the style they set themselves in you can take a punt at mimicking their wordplay. We always encourage that you should try to find your own ‘voice’ in writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get an understanding of another’s voice beforehand. Politicians the world over utilise tried and tested speech-giving techniques to make themselves seem more caring, passionate and in control. They imitate others, often citing great speech givers like Winston Churchill and Martin Luther Kind Jr. and attempting to emulate their most effective mannerisms. Rarely would we connect politicians with positive life choices, but in this context they may be onto something. Take that mentality to your writing, and watch your words burst forth as you become a prose pro!
The Devil in the Details
This forces you to pay attention to details. Perhaps it is the original author’s use of a specific element of punctuation that you aren’t sure about the use of (such as the pesky semicolon), or even their ability to cite academic works in their text (a la Malcolm Gladwell). Forcing you to focus gives you great practice at using yet more elements of the English language in a context that will help you to produce it again at a later time.
The whole purpose of this exercise is to make it as easy to check as possible. After you have finished transcribing a piece, it takes a few quick minutes to see how much is accurate and correct. It should really become a ritualistic event, much like keeping a journal, but that doesn’t mean you need to dedicate more than about 20 minutes a day to start seeing the results. It is important though that it is done by hand, as there are a lot of studies linking handwriting with cognitive recall. It’s like magic.
Every great writer has a technique to help them get the pistons firing in their head before settling down to enjoy a productive session of writing. Think of them like warmers, small activities designed to get your brain functioning in the correct context, and giving it focus on the area of itself it will need to utilise in the near future.
It is claimed that this technique is nearly as old as education itself, with clay tablets discovered in what would have been Mesopotamia showing evidence of scribes copying down proverbs and sayings. This tradition continued into the Ancient Egyptians and was also practiced by Jewish kings of old, as they were expected to “make their own hand-written copy of scriptures” according to wonder.riverwillow.com‘s introduction to copywork.
It is also true that many of the historical greats of written English would practice this technique, as before the invention of the printing press, much of what people wanted to create a copy of had to be hand-written. William Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens are some key examples, and Benjamin Franklin even taught himself to read and write by utilising copy work techniques!
Vocabulary and Grammar
That’s right; it can help you level up your V & G game. Even those of you already operating at a near Wordsworthian height can benefit from seeing both of these elements of written language in context.
I’m sure many of you have at different times thought about expanding your vocabulary, whether it be with a word a day app/calender, wider and more diverse reading or even just using a thesaurus when writing. A wide and varied vernacular is crucial for a writer, and to help understand some more advanced texts to be read for pleasure. Different genres often have their own specific lexical sets too. This technique gives you real time vocabulary seen in context, and produced in such a way by yourself in parroting that you literally see the word fall in it’s correct place in a sentence.
The whole ‘place in a sentence’ thing is extra crucial when we consider grammar. IQ has many grammar gnomes we keep locked away in our basement ready to proof-read our posts, but not everyone can be so lucky to rely on the bookworm-readiness of fantasy creatures.
English is capable of some truly bizarre grammar rules and structures, and a great way to learn these naturally (and not with mind-numbingly boring grammar books – unless that’s your thing, which is fine) is to use them in context. A whole industry of English teachers exist around the world, qualified by and large by the fact that they know the native use of language by heart, without any real formal training. It’s this ability to ‘feel’ what is right that will be one of the greatest benefits of copywork.
The great masters of literature perfected their grammatical cohesion and word choice; let their example set you free!
Need further motivation? TheWritePractice.com has a wonderful blog giving advice on further reasons why imitating your favourite authors will help with your own writing.
This doesn’t just have to be for the fiction writers out there; copywork can be hugely useful for anyone studying or practising law, medicine, history, or any of the other writing heavy subject areas, especially those with specific academic jargon (I’m looking at you, law).
Go forth and imitate. It might be the best thing you do today!
Special thanks to bulldogza, digidreamgrafix, Feelart, hyena reality, imagerymajestic, khongkitwiriyachan and stockimages @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.
© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015