Why Good Writers Copy

Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci

Before I knew that I wanted to be a writer, I used to hand write out the books and passages that I loved.  I didn’t keep them anywhere special–this was grade five.  I kept pages of copied words in my desk.  Every now and then, I would take them out and read them over.  Except one day my teacher saw what I was doing and pulled me aside.

“That’s cheating,” he said.  “You can’t do that.”

“I’m just trying to keep the words,” I said.

My teacher frowned.  “People who copy end up in jail,” he said.  “That’s just the way it is.”

Horrified, I threw out all of my copied pages and I gave up the copying game for building The Most Amazing Snow Fort Of All Time.

It wasn’t until a little while ago that I started to see what it was that I had been doing.  I’d always known that there was never a nefarious scheme to steal the words that I had written down, but I’d never realized that my goal in all of that tireless scribbling had been a form of writing practice.

A little while ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Winter at a local writing seminar.  In person, he is affable and easy to talk to.  While telling stories about his own writing practice, giving examples of writers that he likes and even singing a song, there was one piece of advice that really stood out to me:

michael winters quote

What I realized was that all of the great writers start out by playing with the writing that is already out there.  It’s not illegal to write in somebody else’s voice! (As long as you are telling your own story).  If you’re feeling adventurous (or maybe just in need of something new to try) why not choose a story that challenges you?  Write in the voice of that author to find out how it feels. At the very least, you’ll discover something new about yourself.

 

*Photo by Michael Caven.

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Chutes and Ladders, Or The Process

Writing is sometimes like playing chutes and ladders.  As a kid, I played this game like crazy.   I loved the feeling of excitement as my little plastic game piece climbed up the board, getting tantalizingly closer to the goal.  Every time I slid down again, I was even more determined to climb to the top.

Similarly, the writing process often goes like this:

The climb: write draft feverishly for days at a time. Draft gets finished.

Nearing the goal: THIS IS THE BEST DRAFT EVER! I AM CLEARLY BRILLIANT!

An unexpected slide: Begin editing again.  (Enough said).

The climb: Write feverishly.  Again.

By: Pianotech (altered by me)

By: Pianotech (altered by me)

Somehow, in the middle of the process when a draft is coming to an end, it becomes clear that a “finished” draft is missing something crucial at the beginning.  It sounds counterintuitive, but I think that the unexpected slide is an extremely necessary part of the writing process.  Ever heard of the phrase “hindsight 20/20?”

By: Peter Marquardt

By: Peter Marquardt

In life, this hindsight business is really not that helpful.  Sure, you can see later that driving around the nearest town yelling “FABUTAN!” out of your window with a group of hyped up friends was not actually the height of coolness in high school, but you won’t realize it until it is too late (aka adulthood –yet another YOUNG ME stunt I’d like to forget).

The beautiful thing about writing is that hindsight is actually useful.  When you find yourself sliding downwards into another editing trap, remember that all of those insights that you just had are now useable in your next draft to make it better.

Even Dante & Virgil in Dante’s Inferno had to journey downwards through all of the levels of hell before they could start that climb up to heaven, after all.  …Not that I think writing is like being in hell, or anything.  Usually.  Mostly.  Okay, sometimes.

By: Gustave Dore

By: Gustave Dore