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Contemplating Copy Work


By Deborah Brewer

What author’s work would you emulate? A simple copy work exercise could be your masterclass. Over the centuries, students of writing have hand-copied sales letters, poetry, scripture, legal documents, and even passages from scientific journals. Not to plagiarize, but to learn. Copying prose and poetry longhand is an inexpensive and accessible way to improve writing fluency, rhythm, grammar mechanics, and storytelling technique. Authors such as Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson did it and modern writers do it too.

Will your work parrot the style of the writer you study? Yes, but in a good way. You will acquire the nuances of their grammar, vocabulary, and storytelling craft. But remember, your writer’s voice is about more than syntax. It’s everything you bring to your work including your worldview, interests, experiences, and message. Unless you are trying to forge a “lost” Agatha Christie novel, copying her words into a notebook will not make your stories read like hers. They will read like yours, only better on account of her example.

Three Approaches to Copy Work

There are many approaches to copy work. Unlike the method used by Robert Louis Stevenson, attempting to rewrite a passage from memory, the following methods I use myself do not require memorization for success.

If you often find yourself intimidated by a blank page, or going back over the words you just wrote, again and again, you could benefit from a copy work exercise for writing fluency. Day after day, you simply copy from a book until it’s done. The beauty of this method is that your subconscious is being tutored in grammar and style without having to create any content. It allows you to focus on writing craft without being creative so that you don’t get hung up on the craft when you are writing creatively.

This is also a great exercise for someone switching genres (adult science fiction to middle grade), or narrative point of view (third-person, past tense to first-person, present). I use this method for poetry when I’m switching to a different meter.

Copying, accurately, from a book forces close reading. Not everyone possesses an eagle’s eye and the attention to detail necessary to be a great copy editor. But even small improvements in your editing skills, including the ability to slow down and detect missing words, poor word choices, and misplaced commas, will make your writing cleaner and give more value to your critiques of other writers’ work. Copy work for writing mechanics will hone these skills.

Copy work can also be used to study a particular writing technique. I was struggling to show the thoughts and feelings of my heroine’s love interest while maintaining her close third-person point of view. A romance novelist recommended a book that would demonstrate a good technique. The plot was so compelling that I raced through to the end of the story without taking any notes. It took slowly combing through the book again to learn the subtle but effective ways the hero’s heart was revealed.

A Simple Copy Work Method for Writing Fluency

Hand copy the words of a favorite writer into a notebook for a set period each day; say 20 minutes before bedtime. Begin at the first page and copy the words into a composition book until the time runs out. Make sure you copy the spelling and punctuation exactly but don’t reflect much on the words. This is a workout for your creative subconscious, not your conscious editor self. When the time is up, mark the place where you finished to continue the next day and switch your attention to other writing or obligations.

A Deep-Dive Copy Work Method for Writing Mechanics

Copy a passage from your regular reading that speaks to you and do a deep dive.

Underline the following as you go:

  • Unfamiliar words
  • Words you can’t easily spell
  • Punctuation that you might have used differently
  • Typos and other errors
  • Interesting turns of phrase

Make notes about what you learned or enjoyed about the passage and why you chose it. Note how the passage made you feel or an interesting point the author made. For underlined words, practice spelling or look up their meaning and usage. Look up proper punctuation usage for those marks that surprised you. Then practice what you learned with a sentence or two of your own content.

A Great Lines Copy Work Method for Writing Technique

Chose an aspect of writing you would like to improve: opening paragraphs, dialogue, chapter last lines, descriptions, adverbs, internal dialogue, etc. Skim through a book you’ve read before (preferably by a master in your chosen genre) looking for prime examples to hand copy into your notebook. Once you’ve collected a few snippets or even thirty, examine their commonalities. Look for useful principles or techniques you can incorporate into your writing. Then write up a few sentences of your own using what you learned.

It’s no secret that we learned to speak by imitation. No one accuses us of having plagiarized our local accent and dialect. These are our linguistic heritage. Writing is no different. Find a book you admire by a writer you respect and let the learning commence.

Deborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology,  Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.

1 Response

  1. Trista Trista says:

    Love this! Great article, Deborah.

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