The purpose of this short text is to call attention to the potential value of an age-old practice which has fallen out of favor: copying. I am not referring to plagiarism (which seems not to have fallen out of favor). In the old days people would also copy by hand or type words that others—admired writers—had written. The goal was to preserve these words, say, in a “commonplace book” or, as I have done, in files of quotations to be used, with appropriate citation, in my own writing. It might be said that such practices are now unnecessary; it takes not two minutes to find most any quotation on the Web. I may yet write a piece in praise of the unnecessary.
The proposal here, however, is quite pragmatic: copying is one of the best ways to learn to write. Renoir apparently used to say that painting from nature was all well and good, but the only place to learn to paint was in a museum. One might think, too, of a young dancer in the wings of a nightclub, watching the best dancers and imitating their steps by herself, developing muscle memory. Later, on the main floor, in the light, emboldened for one reason or another, the student will not only repeat the moves of the stars; she will combine these moves and do some improvising of her own.
A third analogy to complete the set: Some years ago, returning from St. Petersburg to New York after several weeks spent struggling to learn how to correctly use Russian “verbs of motion,” I recounted my struggles to a highly qualified Russian linguist. Her response: “What are verbs of motion?” As a native English speaker I find myself similarly in the dark when foreigners tell me of their struggles to learn “phrasal verbs.” This points to the fact that we learn languages best, particularly when we are young, not by studying grammar but rather by being impregnated with phrases. How are you? Comment vas-tu? Kak dyela? One such phrase gives birth to many another. How is your mother? Are you feeling better? Ca va mieux maintenant? Miraculously, the impregnation, birthing and further developments occur without our being conscious that work is being done. This subconsciousness offers the large additional advantage of not inviting the analytical parts of our brains, our internal censors included, to hover over us as we are writing or speaking. Not thinking about what might be right or wrong but recalling and inventing patterns, we may write (and speak) more freely, less fearful of making mistakes and more open to exploring possibilities.
In my work with the Zeteo journal I often see drafts of articles and essays that suffer from what I call diction problems. “Children’s literature may yield greater influence on its audience than adult literature.” “The courts’ historical presumption toward racial objectivity.” I am not concerned that there are mistakes here; we all make mistakes, myself included, and Zeteo, like many journals nowadays, is pleased to receive submissions from non-native English speakers. It might also be said that, thanks to the resources now available on the Web, it should be easy for writers (and editors) to learn what words traditionally go with what other words and to rein in their departures from correct or traditional English.
The problem is that if you have not developed an ear for what words go and don’t go with what other words, you have no way of knowing when you are carrying the tune. Indeed, in my experience, writers who make a lot of diction mistakes are puzzled (as well as taken aback) by fixes. “Why presumption of?” The corrected formulations are as unfamiliar to them as the mistaken ones were.
How does one develop such an ear? My son’s trumpet teacher says that hearing good music develops one’s musical ear, and I would certainly join with those who say that you cannot learn to write if you do not read, and read a good deal. And you write as you read: If much of your reading is skimming electronic texting or, say, reading jargon-heavy academic texts, your prose will reflect this. You will end up copying what you read, whether you are copying deliberately or not. (Perhaps this essay ought to be retitled: “In praise of copying as a conscious, deliberate activity with subconscious effects”?)
More deliberate copying can be thought of as a way of learning somewhat more actively, but still subconsciously, what reading may teach more passively. And again I would stress: The person who knows in her muscles that people do not express disapproval and frustration in, but rather with and of, is way ahead of the person who has to stop and think, engage the censor to try to figure out what’s right or wrong.
Copying (along with memorizing, another lost art) is thus recommended as a way of learning to write—not only for people seeking to learn to write in a foreign language, but also for those seeking to increase their repertoire of patterns, if you will. I would note that the “patterns” can be rather more complex than “have influence on” or “How are you?” A line from Emerson that I am pleased to have lodged in my memory: “He was an emperor deserted by his states, and left to whistle by himself, or thrust into a mob of emperors, all whistling”.
Copying also offers something in addition to a way of learning to write. It is a means of revisiting a text, of engaging again with it and qualities of the prose, and a little more slowly than one did the first time, reading silently to oneself. And in this regard, and as regards learning to write by copying, it should be noted that there is little to be gained by cutting and pasting bits of electronic text. The copying has to be done by hand; ideally in handwriting, since that is the slowest method. Typing can work, too, and perhaps particularly if one is a slow typist or if, like me, you are quite fast but make a lot of mistakes that you have to go back and correct. Consciously you may be annoyed or impatient, but meanwhile one’s fingers or neurons are learning how to form or tap collections of letters and words that would be much harder to find one’s way to via conscious processes.
Clearly it matters what or who you copy (or do the most copying from), but this is a problem that solves itself. Should you set yourself to copying, inevitably you will copy passages that you like from writers that you like and want to write like. The continued use of the dictée (copying from dictation) in the French educational system, and of memorization in the Russian one, take this approach to another level. Now the teacher or the state educational administration is imparting to its children, inculcating in them, patterns considered particularly worth learning and by all members of the society.
Many people also learn subconsciously by more or less copying their own work. This is not a good way of expanding one’s repertoire, but one can see with Hemingway, Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss, for example, that this can be a way of developing a distinctive voice and of learning to write rapidly, fluidly. Once the rhythms of one’s own poetry or prose are ingrained, writing can become surprisingly similar to riding a bike (hills included).
Two caveats and two copied passages by way of conclusion. First, please note that copying provides, inter alia, a way of ignoring a tougher task: developing the self-confidence and courage required for getting one’s own words down on paper or screen, and for persisting in the face of setbacks and fear, traffic and headwinds. It would take another essay to cover this part of “learning” to write. There is a sense in which the richness of a piece of writing or of a given writer’s work is a direct function of her self-confidence and courage at the moment or in general. And I presume as well that developing these qualities depends to a large extent on genes, on early childhood experiences and on how the world responds to you and your work, particularly when you are young. A sense, right or wrong, of succeeding can certainly build one’s confidence and courage (and at times this can be detrimental). Succeeding professionally or financially can also give one the time to write, and to copy.
Secondly, empiricists may be calling for empirical evidence. College seniors who have spent 15 minutes a day copying in the way I have described are able to write 25 percent better than college students whose college careers did not include such copying—I can see the Science Times news item already. But instead of infringing on the future, I would offer the following simple experiment. Copy by hand a few times these sentences:
I could not find the bathroom. After a while I found it. There was a deep stone tub. I turned on the taps and the water would not run. I sat down on the edge of the bath-tub. When I got up to go I found I had taken off my shoes. I hunted for them and found them and carried them down-stairs. I found my room and went inside and undressed and got into bed. (The Sun Also Rises)
Now tell me yes or no: Is the pattern of this prose now implanted in your brain but good?
Legend has it that Hunter S. Thompson, while working as a copy boy at TIME, typed out A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby. Contrarians may ask if he really needed to do so much typing to end up with sentences like: “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas.” Perhaps he did.
“Sleep,” one of the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream says, “Steal me awhile from mine own company.” Unfortunately, personal experience with sleep and dreams has not led me to hold out such a hope for them. Yet, having now copied from both Thompson and Shakespeare, I can say this, too, in praise of copying: While possibly habit-forming, it is not otherwise bad for one’s health, and it can indeed put some distance between a copier and his own thoughts, and offer the pleasure of being inspired by others.
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Click for pdf In praise of copying.