When I started my career as a copywriter I received this befuddling advice:
“If you want to get good, copy the most successful sales letters by hand”
The “hand copying method” is revered in copywriting circles. In large part due to Gary Halbert’s famous letter on the subject.
While some of the best in the business swore by this method, I shrugged it off. The whole copy by hand schtick seemed more like a recipe for carpal tunnel syndrome rather than practical writing advice.
Recently, I found out copywriters weren’t the only ones who employed this strategy. Literary juggernauts like Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Benjamin Franklin also copied writers they looked up.
Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson is said to have typed out the entire Great Gatsby. In an interview, his close friend Johnny Depp said:
“You know Hunter typed The Great Gatsby? He’d look at each page Fitzgerald wrote, and he copied it. The entire book. And more than once. Because he wanted to know what it felt like to write a masterpiece.”
In hopes of joining this literary cabal I started a similar practice. Before opening up my laptop to write, I hand copy passages from my favorite books.
In spite of my skepticism I was surprised with the results. Through copying great writers, some of the style seeped into my own work. The method is unorthodox and a tad cumbersome, but it seems to work. Why is this?
Reading Vs Writing
As an avid reader and an aspiring writer I spend equal parts of the day buried in books and hammering away at my word processor. While the two activities inform one another, they are distinct.
Reading focuses on comprehension. Writing on syntax.
When you read something your goal is to understand the words and relate them with the larger text in front of you.
When you write, your focus zooms inward. You zero in on structure, style, and grammar: the raw material necessary to express your ideas.
Copying someone’s work allows you to separate the two activities. It shifts your focus from reader to writer. You gain awareness of how an author structures sentences. What words they include and omit. Their punctuation. And turn of phrase.
You come to see that everything on the page, down to the slightest details, was a deliberate choice. Ones that the author labored over draft after draft.
Learn Through Action
Through copying a great work you absorb an author’s writing style. The repetition. Penning word after word. Sentence after sentence. Paragraph after paragraph; allows you to steep in a writer’s diction.
This doesn’t happen consciously. In the moment, the act of copying comes across as laborious and impractical. Your conscious mind may wonder: am I really getting anything out of this? But while the conscious mind has its doubts, your subconscious is hard at work; taking notes, inspecting tone and voice, looking for ways to fuse these findings into your own work.
Is it necessary to write by hand for this to happen? There are differing opinions. Some say reciting or typing passages has a similar effect. Those are worthy practices, but I believe the handwritten word reigns king. Science backs me up on this. Studies suggest that writing by hand improves comprehension and cognitive ability. But it also does something deeper:
Developing A Kinetic Connection With The Work:
This may come across as overly sentimental, but I stand by it.
Motion creates energy (yes I know “woo woo”). The kinetic feeling of putting ink on paper gives you a visceral appreciation for the work. Each stroke of the pen is a breath of life to words that inspired you.
There is something romantic about this. It connects you with the past. It draws you closer to your heroes: those who’ve mastered the arduous, and at times thankless craft of writing. Through copying the words you become a steward of their work.
Phenomenal writing has a mystifying force: almost an act of magic. It can appear surreal even to those that have studied the craft. As someone who routinely struggles to write an intelligible sentence, the fact that someone wrote page after page of gorgeous prose seems like an impossible feat.
Hunter Thompson copied each page of The Great Gatsby because he wanted to “feel what it was like to write a masterpiece.” Copying great writing puts literary feats in our mortal hands. It lets us aspiring writers have a nimble of greatness.
Most importantly it shows us the writing we worship is composed of the same raw materials as our humble work. Sentence, structure, syntax, etc. We may never match the achievements of our heroes but perhaps some of their magic can rub off on us.