This Is A Great Way to Improve Your Writing

A few weeks ago, I got tasked — or rather, tasked myself — with writing something I am not traditionally very good at, nor even really knew how to do.

But I wanted to write this thing. Had been thinking about writing this thing. Needed to write this thing. It was kind of killing me, always in the back of my mind. I had to get it out.

The only problem was, again, I didn’t know how. I didn’t have the formal training, the schooling, the education, the direction — whatever it is that might help me get from point A to point B.

Honestly, it felt like a fucking science project. I just kept putting it off, because I had no idea where to even start.

I kept thinking — how can I do this? How can I possibly learn how to do this thing without dropping a couple thousand dollars on the education?

And then a lightbulb went off — maybe I could learn how to do it by just copying what is already there. Couldn’t hurt, I thought.

So that’s what I did. I started copying things, sentence by sentence, line by line, making notes along the way. It took a really long time. I’m actually still doing it!

But I’m learning a lot. I’m seeing things I didn’t notice before. Patterns. Structures. Formulas. Style.

I am learning by tracing the work of someone else. Through that, I’m making connections, discovering how the the original creator made it from here to there. I am not only copying it, I am studying it.

Obviously, I would never pass these copies off as my own — that’s plagiarism, of course — but the whole process has been instructive.

See, it’s easy to receive information. On the internet, an autodidact’s dream, information is everywhere. We’ve all looked up our fair share of how-to guides.

But it’s difficult to implement things, which is why those very same how-to guides are buried in our bookmarks. You can’t really learn anything unless you actually know how to do it, little by little, step by step.

Copying, I’ve found, has helped a lot. Even something as short as a page, when I’m done, it’s like I’m writing in that writer’s style. I’ve got their pacing, their language, their thing down.

If I could compare it to anything, it might be how one learns to play an instrument. How when you first get a guitar, you spend most of your time trying to copy other guitarist’s riffs. Before long, you get a few down, and then you’re making up your own.

So, if you’re stuck on something and you just can’t figure out how to get it going, because you basically don’t know, maybe it makes sense to start copying.

It’s like riding a bike with training wheels on. Eventually, the wheels come off and you’re on your way.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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