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Copywork: A Forgotten Writing Practice

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I can’t believe October is almost gone! No game shipped this month, so I could concentrate on the Torrance Learning xAPI cohort (see my previous two posts here and here for updates on my experiments). But, very soon, after finishing a Simon game for Free Code Camp, I’d like to embark on an interactive fiction project using Twine (which ties in very nicely to this week’s DearID show so listen in!). But I haven’t written in AGES!

I’ve been wanting to get back into writing for quite some time, but it’s seemed like a really insurmountable task. Making time for it is a challenge, but far beyond that, I’ve found myself intimidated by the prospect in a way I’ve never been before. So I’ve been thinking, “What is the smallest, least intimidating thing I can do to start writing again?” I started with trying to get into writing in “beats” which is a practice that is used in both fiction writing and game writing, but I still found myself putting it off. So, I kept digging and I finally found an interesting practice.

It’s called copywork and it’s based on the same principle as painters beginning with copying the old masters before starting to do their own work. The folks over at The Art of Manliness explain it this way:

We often believe that history’s greatest writers would simply put pen to paper, and wait for beautiful prose to erupt like a geyser from their fountain of inborn talent. We believe that only a truly ungifted writer – a real hack – would have to learn how to write by copying other people.

The truth is most great writers began by doing just that – painstakingly writing out in longhand the works of the greats who had come before them.

They understood that one’s writing style does not emerge fully developed like Athena from Zeus’ head, but has to be cultivated. Imitation of another’s style was not the end of this cultivation process, but a means to an end. Like a chef who never stops sampling and dissecting the delicious dishes of other cooks in order to find inspiration to up his own game and create his own new recipes, great writers spun the underlying elements of others’ style into something uniquely theirs.

Want to Become a Better Writer? Copy the Work of Others! -- Brett and Kate McKay

As with the idea of start small, start now, I’m fascinated by this idea and I think that it’s a great way to help me get back into writing. It seems as though the key is intention, paying close attention to the style on the page, what makes it different, what makes it enjoyable. I’m focusing my copywork on Neil Gaiman. He’s probably my favorite contemporary writer and I really admire his voice. I may also need to find some games with great writing and copy them as well. While Gaiman has an incredibly diverse body of work from movies to comics to novels for both adults and children, I know that game writing is a horse of a different color (Wizard of Oz reference).

Anyway, hoping to get great mileage out of this by making it a daily practice. As with so many things, becoming a better writer will definitely bleed over into this blog and into my instructional design work. I’m excited to get better!

How do you practice writing?

2 Comments

  1. Noah Stroehle
    October 28, 2016 - Reply

    Hi Kristin,

    First off, I still read and enjoy your blog. And I’ve been working with several folks here who want to emulate your blog’s look for a story-driven FIC blog and I’ve been spending a lot of time on your site with Firebug until I had the bright idea of just contacting you directly. More in this in a sec, though.

    I’ve been writing since I learned cursive in the second grade. This particular post really struck a cord with me because while I’ve never been taught to incorporate copywork (and never just intuitively done it on my own), I have throughout my life read the work of published writers and rewritten their work. Actually, I prefer to think of it as fixing their obviously flawed, ill-conceived work and rewriting it so that it’s not only markedly better, but also restores balance to the universe that was thrown out of whack by shallow half-assedery.

    Unchecked egotism aside, this approach is wrought with many problems. On the other hand, it’s a great writing exercise. The process of rewriting a story requires a great deal of reflection and analysis that often results in illumination and surprise. That surprise might be one of the following: “I didn’t ever think I would change this story that way” or “Wow, this story is actually a wonderful piece of work deserving of the acclaim it’s garnered and now I understand why.”

    This post got me thinking about this and I’m better for it. I have had moments in the past couple months where I’ve been feeling like a hack. However, if I view this as a part of the practice of writing, it becomes as important in my mind as it is in my practice.

    Thanks Kristin!

    And if you would care to share what WP theme and plugins you use on your blog, I’d be grateful while also understanding if you didn’t want to share that info. Hope all is well in your world!

    • October 28, 2016

      Howdy Noah! Thanks for reading. I actually am a hack writer (I never finished things in the days where I was writing all the time). And so now, I hope that by using copywork as a practice, I can start to get back in touch with and improve my ability to tell a story. I think you’re spot on with the revelation that this rewriting process can help you understand what works and why.

      So… my blog theme is Cartel, purchased from themeforest. I bought it after a long search because I really wanted something that reflected my work first, instead of blog themes that focus on the person first (like those with the bar charts that are meant to represent skill level). I actually have quite a few plugins, mostly from WPMU Dev for backend things but none of them interfere with the look of the blog. All of that comes from Cartel.

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