October 4, 2021

Copywork - A Writing Technique

Woman writing and reading

Since the dawn of time, people have learned their craft through apprenticeships, learning to immitate the craftsman or artist they were tied to, and helping them in their works in exchange for that knowledge. Then, as their own skills improved, they would diverge and start experimenting new things, finding their own style, and sometimes even outshone their master.

This is true of any of the great artists whose works have transcended time--Michaelangelo was apprenticed to painter Ghirlandaio who was himself known for his murals, while Da Vinci himself apprenticed in the workshop of Andrea del Verrochio. 

Even if they hadn't apprenticed directly with someone, they still learned through immitation of others' works. Mozart, praised as a genius in his time already, one as "such people come into the world once in a hundred years"(1), started off by mimicking what was in vogue at the time, and worked extremely hard all his life to continue to improve and innovate. "Quite a bit of the music is reassuringly routine; Hermann Abert writes, in his massive biography, that Mozart 'evolved along sound lines, without any supernatural leaps and bounds.'"(2)

Nowadays, artists still learn from the greats--imitating their works, from their composition and color choices, to their gestures and proportions, before applying bits and pieces of what they've learned from various artists to figure out their own style. Picasso's early work shows how he worked on his fundamentals, favoring a much more realist style, before he diverged to the more "modernistic easthetic"(3) for which he is known.

Plaster Male Torso
Picasso, 1893

"Good artists copy; great artists steal." ~

Steve Jobs (mis)quoting Picasso, referring to Stravinsky, derived from T.S. Eliot, influenced by W.H. Davenport Adams (4)

It is therefore surprising to me that copywriting is often ignored when teaching writing.  Sure, the Great Literary Works are taught in school, where students have to dissect meaning, themes, and historical impacts of the original texts. And, yes, we were always told to read as much as possible (advice repeated ad infinitum by any current author). But that, I find, is not enough to truly improve one's writing. It's still too...passive. 

Ron Friedman explained what copywriting entailed in his book Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success: 

"Both King and Hill were utilizing forms of copywork, a technique popularized by Benjamin Franklin and practiced by literary greats F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London, and Hunter Thompson. It involves studying an exceptional piece of writing, setting it aside, and then re-creating it word for word from memory. (...) What makes copywork so effective is that it forces an artist or writer to do more than simply recall content. Reproducing a piece demands that he or she pay careful attention to the organizational decisions and stylistic tendencies reflected in an original work. It is an exercise that enables novices to relive the creative journey and invites them to compare their instinctive inclinations against the choices of a master."

Quill pen

Yes, it can seem tedious. Yes, it is hard work. Yes, the struggle is real for me too. 

But I believe that it's through continuous hard work and proper application of our newly learned skills that we will improve our writing.

Sources and Resources:

(1) Prince Kaunitz, Emperor Joseph II's chief minister, as reported in The New Yorker's article The Storm of Style - Listening to the complete Mozart, by Alex Ross

(2) The Storm of Style - Listening to the complete Mozart, by Alex Ross, The New Yorker

(3) Picassos' Incredible Childhood Paintains Reveal a Different Side of the Modern Artist, by Kelly Richman-Abdou, My Modern Met

(4) Quote investigator for "Good artists copy; great artists steal"

(5) 25 quotes to help you steal like an artist, by Austin Kleon

(6) Great Artists Steal, UVU School of the Arts