Why you should be a copycat


Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Being called a copycat is generally an insult. Instead, I think it’s a valuable tool for writers to try…

If you were ever able to sneak into my home office around 6 am on a weekday morning, you just might find me hunched over my computer, copying words written by another writer.

Am I plagiarizing? No!

I’ve written before about the value of literally copying the work of others; it’s one of the most effective ways I’ve found of improving my own writing. It’s my own form of deliberate practice.

Since I started copying first thing in the morning (before checking email!) I’ve used blog posts, magazine articles and books. The source material doesn’t matter much, as long as the writing is good. I copy using my keyboard, not by hand. I suspect that a paper and pen might be more effective but I find it too painful to write by hand. No matter. I’m smart enough to know that doing something daily – even if I’m not doing it perfectly – is far better than doing it rarely.

Whenever I have early-morning breakfast meetings downtown, I typically set my morning alarm for 10 minutes earlier than usual. The school of hard knocks has taught me that if I want to accomplish something, I need to do it first thing in the morning. Otherwise, it just doesn’t happen.

Here’s what I like about my morning habit:

Copying helps me understand information better. Years ago, I copied about 25 percent of the writing style book Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik. It’s an impressive and very funny book, but my style is nothing like Plotnik’s and I’m not sure I want it to become so. I think his sense of humour drew me — doing anything early in the morning needs to be at least a little fun. But it turns out the old rascal is convincing me that adverbs might just have a place in my writing. (See page 37-42 if you have his book.) I did not have this revelation after reading the book once; it took copying to convince me.

Copying helps me absorb the voice of writers I want to emulate. Copying is for writers as performing scales is for musicians. You don’t have to think hard when doing it. Occasionally, you may even find it boring. But it gives you a facility with language. Better, it gives you another writer’s facility. The act of copying exposes you to the deep internal structure of a piece and allows you to absorb its rhythms and cadences. Sometimes you’ll like what you copy – but you may also be pleasantly surprised by what you learn when you don’t.

Copying helps me learn how to achieve specific goals. Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of a New York Times piece I copied by Alex Halberstadt.

Inside the renovated Le Bernardin in Midtown Manhattan, the pink flowers are as tall as dogwoods and the latticework walls give off a coppery, sci-fi sheen, and Christopher Kimball, the most influential home cook in American prods a fork into an appetizer of Wagyu beef, langoustine and osetra caviar from China. He pulls apart the cylinder and glances skeptically inside. I’m happier eating at Di Far,” he claims, meaning the slice parlor in an Orthodox Jewish section of Midwood, Brooklyn, that has been occasionally hounded by the city’s Health Department. “Just real pizza,” Kimball enthuses. “No duck sausage and crap.” It’s true that he appears out of place amid the restaurant’s boardroom-in-space decor; with his bow tie, suspenders and severely parted hair, Kimball looks like someone who might’ve sold homeowner’s insurance to Calvin Coolidge.

I enjoyed reading the piece so much that I copied all 6,628 words of it. And here’s what I found out: I didn’t like the writing nearly as much as I thought I had. I found that many of his sentences were too long and many of his words too big or too abstract.

But here were two things the writer did astoundingly well: He produced fantastic images (see: “pink flowers as tall as dogwoods”) and he knew how to use a small number of quotes extraordinarily well. In the 134 words above, only 14 of them are quotes. I’ve highlighted them in maroon type. Many beginning reporters over-quote and it’s a trap that I used to fall into, too. After copying the piece, however, it occurred to me that Alex Halberstadt had taught me how to quote more modestly.

We all learned to talk by copying our parents and our caregivers. Why should we not learn to write that way, too?

This is an updated version of a post that first appeared on my blog Feb. 19/13.


Have you ever tried copying? If so, what did it teach you? If not, will you try it now? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Grace Howlett, the winner of this month’s book prize, Selling to Big Companies by Jill Konrath for an Aug. 28/18 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by September 30/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of Enchantment, by Guy Kawasaki. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.