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FREE & easy writing exercises: Become a better writer by copying someone else
September 19, 2014
Cormac McCarthy did it. Steven Pressfield did it. Even Shakespeare himself did it.
I'm talking, of course, about writers who learned how to write by copying the works of other famous writers. And if you're looking for easy tips on how to improve your writing, this one qualifies as one of the easiest, hands down. It may also be your ticket to becoming a freelance writer.
Pressfield is said to have wanted to emulate Hemingway's style so much that he literally typed out page after page after page of Papa's work. Soon the master writer's sense of story, his writer's voice and even his ability to pace a story -- something that many a writer struggles with when he/ she is interested in becoming a better writer -- impressed itself like indelible ink onto the pages of Pressfield's mind.
It must have worked. Pressfield has written books like The Legend of Bagger Vance and Tides of War. McCarthy penned No Country for Old Men and The Road. You know what Shakespeare wrote.
Becoming a Better Writer Doesn't Have to Be Hard
I first encountered this writing exercise in a copywriting course through American Writers & Artists, Inc. (AWAI) At the beginning of the course, much of your work entails copying sales letters. These aren't just any sales letters. These are sales letters that have made their senders millions and millions and millions of dollars.
Of all the tips to becoming a better writer that you could use, this has got to be one of the easiest -- and therefore, most overlooked -- ways to improve your writing. So much so, that the inner critic that has his own perch in my head said, "Is this really an easy and legitimate way to improve my writing? It kind of sounds like plagiarism to me."
In answer to question number one, yes, it's a legitimate way to become a better writer. Aside from the famous writers that I named above, Joe Vitale mentioned this technique in his book Hypnotic Writing: How to Seduce and Persuade Customers with Only Your Words.
Vitale explained that this is the "subtle inner formula" for learning how to write well. Vitale explained also how Mark Twain gained a world of writing experience when he was a typesetter by using this type of technique. He methodically placed word after word after word of the articles he was typesetting. Yes! Even this famous writer used this deceptively easy technique to become a great writer. You know how his career turned out.
Improve Your Writing Skills Without Getting Into Trouble
In answer to question number two, it's only plagiarism if you plan on hocking someone else's written work and selling it as your own. But that's not why you're using this writing exercise. You're just using it to become a better writer. It goes into the "Tips for becoming a better writer" pile on your desk, not the "I'm in trouble because I stole someone else's work" pile.
Making the Most of This Tip for Better Writing
The beauty of this kind of writing exercise is that you really don't even have to know why it works on a conscious level. It just does.
That said, to really learn how to improve your writing skills using this techniques, you should do the following:
Read the material you're trying to learn multiple times -- up to 10 or more. I find reading it out loud is even better than reading it silently over and over. For longer works, you may want to cut the number of times down to two or three.
Copy out your piece by hand. Pay attention to each word the writer uses. Pay attention to how he/ she creates paragraphs. Pay attention to the times when the author plays around with grammar.
Do the exercise multiple times. As Vitale says,
The more you read powerful writing, and the more you copy it out in your own hand, the more you will train your mind to write irresistible material.
Can this become tedious? In a word, yes. However, it's less tedious and easier than most other writing exercises you can do. And it's far more effective in less time.
Can this cause my writing to become a carbon copy of the writer/s I'm trying to emulate? In a word, no. Just as Twain doesn't sound like the journalists, whose stories he typeset and just as Pressfield doesn't sound like Hemingway, your writing won't sound exactly like the writers you want to emulate. Instead, you'll best learn how to improve your writing skills by taking on the best qualities of the writers you love while combining them with your own voice, sensibilities and themes.
Where Can I Learn More About Using These Writing Tips?
There are a few resources that you'll want to get a hold of to learn more about this writing exercise:
Hypnotic Writing by Joe Vitale (how to make your writing more persuasive -- includes the copying technique as well as many others -- very easy to read)
AWAI's Accelerated Copywriting Course (a full course on learning effective copywriting that makes your client money -- includes a how-to guide for setting up a freelance writing business)
The Copywriter's Handbook: A Step-By-Step Guide To Writing Copy That Sells by Bob Bly (famous copywriter who has made millions using the copying technique to improve and sell his writing)
And does it work? It seems to have for me. I wanted to emulate the crisp style and pacing of Dan Brown for my novel The Girl Who Fell Into the Sky, so I tried this technique. After a time, a test on the site I Write Like…netted me both Dan Brown and Charles Dickens. Double bonus!
P.S. If you're interested learning how to become a freelance writer, signing up for AWAI's copywriting course gives you access to job boards for writers. These are well-paying clients, who seek out AWAI graduates.