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Copywork: A Forgotten Writing Practice

In: Commonplace BookShowing my Work

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?