We can drown ourselves in self-help books, especially self-help books about the art and craft of writing.
I’ve read one too many and I’ve probably forgotten most of what I have read in part because of the flood of tips and cheap tricks that no one could likely remember in totality, except for perhaps Jack Kerouac who had a mind like a trap, so good, that his friends called him memory babe.
But since we’re all not so lucky to be graced with such a deviate memory, we should try to learn the craft through simpler means, instead of reading 10,000 pages of treatises about writing. We’ll have a lot more time on our hands to write (and actually live wild and free…where all good writing comes from, not books).
There’s one simple technique that’s easy to remember and that’s given me a wealth of tried-and-true advice on the craft and how to raise our game — copying.
No frills, no bells and whistles, no 5,000 axioms to remember, no 10,000 pages to unwillfully digest (and more than likely never remember and become mentally bloated too). It seems old hat, and absurd, but some of the best writers learned to write by simply copying word-for-word the prose and verse of others.
That guy on the one hundred dollar bill, Benjamin Franklin (one of the best writers in America), learned to lampoon and dish erudite edits to Thomas Jefferson all from putting under the microscope how others shaped their lines: faithfully copying every word to see how the writers of his time set the page on fire and constructed their logic.
Ernest Hemingway — I know, I know, my go-to reference (and one of the best writers in America) — copied the prose of writers he admired to closely examine how they brought their thoughts to life on the page.
Initially, I know, I know, this technique seems dull and tiresome (and it is dull and tiresome). But practice at any craft — hitting 100,000 tennis balls, shooting 89 free throws in an hour — is never enthralling until we hit the critical shot at the buzzer with only three seconds left in the game for the championship thanks to the dull and tiresome work we did the morning before the big game.
Sure we can read the works of the greats, but that’s a passive activity. It’s only when we write their words with our own hand that we actually attain a true feel of what was going through their minds when they built their castle of words.
When we emulate it precisely in our own hand, we feel and see the line, its emotive power, its terrifying logic. We actively engage the imagery and the language. Through that replication, we get an intimate understanding of every word, comma, period, pause, stop, and especially flow and rhythm.
Before you shun it, try it, because I shunned it before I tried it. I won’t go on proving its value anymore, but I think the best practice, in any craft, whether writing or learning to become masterful with a pogo stick, requires incessant practice via the simplest of techniques. The fundamentals.
There’s no better way to observe the fundamentals of a craft than to observe how it’s done and try your best to mirror the masters. Then in time you break free from emulation and find your own voice. Or so we hope.
Stephen J. McConnell is the co-founder of Guiding Type, a content development and internet marketing company based in Denver, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter, @sj_mcconnell.com, or subscribe to his thoughts on writing blog at sjmcconnell.com.
Stephen also recently finished a novel about a sudden collapse in Earth’s environment and finished a screenplay about a United States soldier’s woes in Afghanistan. He is currently seeking representation for both works. In addition, Stephen recently published an eBook on creative writing, In Search of You. Creative Writing: Journey, Style, Method. He has a B.S. in English from Radford University and a M.S. in Writing from New York University.