Copywork: A Proven Method to Improve Your Writing
I was reading The Boron Letters, letters from a legendary copywriter, Gary Halbert, to his son. In one letter, he tells his son to copy the best ads by hand:
From now on, for the next 4 or 5 months I want you to do this same thing with other ads and DM pieces. But I don’t want you to just copy any old ad or DM piece. I want you to copy only the best.
Now, here’s why I want you to do all this: you see, what happens when you actually write out a good ad in your own handwriting is that the words, the flow, the sentence structure, the sequence of information, and everything else about the writing of that ad becomes a part of you.
This isn’t just an empty experience. This is a way of internally imprinting on your mind and body, the process of good writing. If you do this often enough, you will soon have a deep “inside out” understanding of what it takes and what it feels like to write a good piece of copy.
Later, I found other writers do this too: sometimes simple copying, sometimes more sophisticated exercises.
Ben Franklin did copywork. So did Jack London, who wrote The Call of the Wild. And so did this novelist, Jen Manuels, who did copywork every morning for a year and wrote up how her writing changed for the better.
This morning, I tried it myself, with “A Bit of Sully in Your Sweet” by Cheryl Strayed. This is a beautiful piece, and my heart clings to every word
I was excited to get started, because for me, this was a new way of experiencing an author I love.
Some choice thoughts from the experience:
- My handwriting sucks.
- Two hours in, and only 40% through the piece.
- She used two instances of anaphora.
- Ah, the art of the one sentence paragraph for emphasis.
- She leaves out commas in places where I thought grammatically it would be required. Example: "One day about a year after Mr. Sugar and I moved in together, a woman called our house and asked to speak to Mr. Sugar." WHY IS THERE NO COMMA AFTER ONE DAY?!? She omits commas the same way in many places. It give me the sense that her writing is “talking fast”.
- She often uses a sentence structure of the form "X, Y said." Example:"All of that was a pile of shit now, I realized as I collapsed onto one of the dueling couches."
- Every few paragraphs, she’ll do something more colorful in the middle of her telling, like "Two people who leapt from the same pond to miraculously swim down parallel streams."
- How do her long artsy sentences compare to the short sentences of the Internet/copywriters? Should I ignore her style, or does her beautiful rhythm have a place on the Internet?
I can already see how doing copywork would improve my word choice and rhythm in the long run. To start, perhaps I can do some copywork every weekend. I'll want to couple it with reading about writing, so I know what I'm looking at. I was thinking a lot about Bizup's book as I was doing copywork.
Some pieces I want to copy in the coming weeks:
- Katy Perry's "Firework"
- Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day"
- Mark Manson's "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck"
- Paul Graham's "How to Get Startup Ideas"
But if I can't get myself to do copywork every week, I want to try what I call microcopywork.
Some poets keep a bit journal, where they write down bits of poetry or prose they read and liked.
I could use a form of this as microcopywork. When I read a piece I like, I'll copy down a sentence or paragraph or passage. I'll keep the habit light and easy, so I actually do it.
In the long run, I’ll need even more targeted practice and discipline than rote copywork. There’s more to writing than word choice and rhythm. But this is a start.