Sometimes, I’ve found myself writing with very broken chunks of time: at its most aggressive, it’ll be on demand and with probably 20 minutes in between meetings, with hard deadlines. Other times, late at night, not by choice. In these times, there’s every reason not to write—distraction, despair, and time pressure, not exactly Neal Stephenson’s four hours. I’ve responded to this by developing and refining one of my favorite techniques—a warm up exercise for my writing: copywork.
(Note: Beth Pickens’s Make Your Art No Matter What solidified the idea of warming up before creative work for me. I would never lift weights without a warm up, why wouldn’t I do that for my brain as well? It’s best to gradually transition my brain into a deeper level of processing, allowing for creative wellness, and perhaps unlocking a deeper level of creativity.)
Copywork is a prompt I included in my book Creative Doing. Here’s an excerpt briefly explaining the idea:
Copywork is a technique in writing. The idea is to get better at writing by typing out a piece of writing you like. Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby just to get the feeling of what it was like to write that way. The idea of copywork has been applied to UI design and software development; I’m sure you can figure out how to apply it to your creative work.
It looks like this: before I write, I’ll pull up a reference, a work that I’ve bookmarked, related to what I’m trying to write:
- If I’m aiming for something more extemporaneous, like this blog post, it could be Eddie Huang’s old blog (which I’ve written about before. And while I haven’t typed it out, I also keep MK’s Taking Note Now in mind.)
- If I want to write something more business-y, like an email or blog post for WorkOS, I’ll type something out from Postlight’s blog.
- If I’m writing something more personal, it might be from Antonio García Martínez’s Chaos Monkeys, or Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat.
If I don’t have much time, I’ll do this copywork just for 2–3 minutes, and then write for another 10–20. In some ways, I just need to get my fingers typing, and the brain will follow. If I’m working on an introduction, I’ll type out the lede and the first few paragraphs. If I’m working on a conclusion, I’ll type out the transition and the conclusion.
I take care here in the selection of material. For example, I tried typing out Junot Díaz’s The Briefly Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on a weekend as a bid to write something more personal, and I just ended up reading the whole morning. So that didn’t work for me!
I’ve since found some more examples of copywork, which you could consider one of the original forms of parasocial relationships:
- In Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong recalls transcribing Richard Pryor’s audio and filmed performances. At her poetry readings, she even started doing stand-up comedy by reciting other comedians’ jokes, then transitioning into using only her own jokes. She also writes, “Like most writers and artists, Richard Pryor began his career trying to be someone else.”
- If you’re worried about originality and authenticity, Chris Bosh says in The Knowledge Project #120, “I think when you emulate so much to where it just becomes a part of you, then you’re doing it without thinking about it, then you’re able to put your own sauce on it. It’s going to happen anyway because your personality will come out. I never encourage people to just try to copy everything. But copy the things you like, and put them together and it makes you you.” (Check out this video on Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan making identical plays.)
- Copywork is also a great technique for learning, probably because it really forces you to slow down. Cyhi the Prynce recalls hearing Kanye West learning to produce music by recreating every song on every album from 1991–1999. I’m guessing it wouldn’t be every album, but the idea is still fascinating.
The idea here isn’t to steal, but use imitation as a way to improve your skills. It’s to subliminally put you in the position of thinking and feeling what it’s like to make something that you really appreciate. You’re not faking it till you make it; you’re using other people’s work as a warm up to make something new.
Specifically in writing, I noticed that copywork is a great way to figure out the magic behind a story. Structure, research, analogies, setting, you name it—you can figure it out by typing it all back out. The slower, the better. If I were to measure it, which I don’t, the sweet spot for me would be somewhere around 75–80% of my usual typing speed. Being slow enables my brain to really observe and soak the experience in.
As Michael Saviello said, in another excerpt from Creative Doing, “If you want to start painting, look at the masters, don’t imitate them, but do what they did because they were successful. People like it, so they’re gonna like your stuff. Just maybe change it a little bit, or make it your own kind of style, which I think I did.”
As producer Chris Kim pointed out when I interviewed him, the search for the answer and attempts to imitate or reproduce the original often provide more interesting results than the original idea.
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