Learn by copy

High school English III doesn’t teach you how to write prose in the real world any more than a college CS degree teaches you how to write code in the real world. English III teaches you how to write things that English III teachers want to read, but it’s not necessarily great writing.

I remember having to write an essay about Eudora Welty’s short story Why I live at the P.O. If you haven’t read it, don’t fret. (Yes, the email program “Eudora” is named after Welty.)

No one in the class understood what the story meant. It just seemed extraordinarily dull where nothing was happening, and then nothing happened, and then it ended. The teacher asked us what it meant; no one volunteered an answer. I piped up: “I really don’t know. I’d like to know but I don’t.” The teacher wasn’t happy. The teacher’s pet said the same. The teacher was so disgusted with our lack of insight that she never did tell us the answer.

Since I never learned to write well — persuasively, with entertainment, with interest — I learned by copying.

Not plagiarizing — that’s when you use someone else’s words. Rather, I tried to copy style. By copying I learned what I liked, what I had some ability to do.

For example, in Hello, I’m 1074018628, a little ditty from 2008, I copied Seth Godin’s style. It’s 160 words. It makes a simple, solitary point. It runs right from specific example to overarching lesson bordering on a morality tale. At the end you’re left inspired to improve yourself, and by extension improve the world.

Except… when you think about how to implement your newfound inspiration, you have no tools. The example is apt, but then again you’re not that bad — you don’t mail-merge numbers in MailChimp. And when you’re trying to be creative and innovative, you realize that “not shitty” isn’t a goal. So then you re-read the post looking for guidance for how to be extraordinary, but saying “be the opposite of shitty” is not a lesson at all. It’s just Seth (or me) staring back at you like my English III teacher, full of expectation and no answers.

So here’s what I learned by copying Seth: I like examples, I don’t like leaving the reader without a framework for finding a solution. I can’t explore an interesting thought in only 160 words. I like trying to leave the reader on an up-note. And I really did learn; see for example this article which exemplifies each of those specific lessons.

I copied others too, sometimes with attribution, like this satire piece about Joel Spolsky whose construction was 100% lifted off the first essay of Steve Almond’s Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions (not that you asked). Here I learned that it was really fun but inventing structures like that is beyond my ability.

Even now I’m copying! Even now, after I seem to have “found my voice,” with 50,000 subscribers in apparent agreement, I’m still experimenting with other voices. Like this very post, which I’m doing in the style of James Altucher, except without the sexual exploits, and therefore far less entertaining.

Specifically, like this post of James’s, I started with a personal story, but it won’t quite finish until the end where it wraps up with an almost trivial conclusion but leaves you with a sense of the larger point. I’m using shorter sentences than is my wont. I’m admitting embarrassing or disdainful things about myself, like how I’m insecure and how I have to copy others’ style rather than being strong and perceptive enough to develop my own.

It started when Penelope Trunk (who I can’t read anymore, as it’s converted into a morbid diary of someone knowingly seeking emotional and physical abuse) said that James was her favorite VC writer. That’s meaningful because I read Penelope only because of style — I like how punchy her old (semi)fiction writing is, where every word of every sentence moves the action forward, no word wasted.

James is the same, but writes about business, finance, relationships, sex, hobnobbing with other famous people, and other enviously awesome stuff, all with the same punch and frightening honesty that Penelope has.

Plus, the talented bastard even employs literate construction to his pieces. Articles don’t just terminate, they complete a story arc, the end tied to the beginning in a neat bow. He has no need for the typical coda wherein the author transforms into a beggar, directing your attention to the “conversation” to be joined in the comments. (Like I do.)

Now that you know this is an attempt at style duplication, you can see for yourself how much better James at it than I. But “being as good as James at James’ style” is not the point. The point is to learn and grow as a writer, and this was fun to do.

This technique is useful in almost any pursuit. I was the inter-mural racquetball champion at the University of Texas, and although it required lots of practice, I learned by watching the good players and trying to copy their movements — their swing, where they’d run, where they’d place the ball.

Did any great chef not, at various points in her career, intentionally learn various styles from various cultures?

Even Picasso — one of the most creative, innovating artists in history — first learned his craft by copying the styles of the Great Masters.

As a culture, at least in America, we cherish creativity, we reward uniqueness. We’re obsessed with “innovation.” We’re trained that copying is evil.

Rather, copying is one of the best ways of learning, growing, evaluating, and exploring. It’s a valid tool so long as we regard it as a means to an end.

Copying ironically helps you discover yourself: The way to discovering who you are, what you value, what you’re good at, what you believe, is to try things on for size — to copy — and see what fits. Bits and pieces of you are already reflected in the things around you, so pick up handfuls of other creations and see which bits you want to keep.

Eventually the teacher’s pet found some commentary on Eudora Welty in our textbook, saying that Welty encapsulates Southern life and mores. We memorized it, in case it was on the test.

  • Do you think that because other societies seem to be more ok with copying that this leads to being more accepting of  movie piracy?

    • It’s certainly true that most cultures outside of America have a more lax perspective about copying.  But e.g. in Europe copying-as-learning is more prevalent, but copying-as-bootlegging isn’t.  Asia is vastly more prone to just not paying for content that people created, which I feel is a different type of copying than the form where no one lost money and no one was harmed.

  • Nice! Reminds me of the wonderful Remix series http://www.everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series/.

    … and I’m trying to copy you, obviously :)

  • I’m heartily in agreement – not least because oe of my great literary heroes (whom I’ve spent a lot of my writing career imitating) did exactly the same thing, only even more explicitly.

    That’s Hunter S Thompson, of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas fame, who learned to write (so the story goes) by literally re-typing Hemmingway, word for word. 

    • Wow that’s amazing, especially for someone with such a unique voice.

    • That’s amazing and for me (again) exposes the problem of false confidence … people (I) think understanding  (eating too much is bad; I actually know what I should eat) should somehow translate to being able to, perhaps even without great difficulty, doing.

      But your example is fantastic. Hard to accept that ‘getting it’ isn’t good enough.

  • Reading the Intelligent Entreprenuear right now. The Ladders CEO talks about reading about techniques in magazines specifically Sam Walton (Saturday Morning Meetings) and applying them in his own way so he could learn to lead and manage effectively.

  • To add prospective from another field, most scientific/engineering research starts by replicating someone else’s experiment (or perhaps pieces of a few experiments), and then exploring why the replication (almost inevitably) didn’t work.  

    This touches on the common objection, that copying will lead to bland derivative works.  Hogwash – you’re already different than they are, so your initial duplicate is necessarily just the starting point from which a unique style can grow.

  • vladiim

    There is a brilliant body of work out there by many smart people. By taking elements of their work your essentially building on their body of work as you’ll build on what people have done in the past (except for the curebit/37signals debacle). 

    Copying allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants – if we didn’t build on the work of others we would never evolve. 

  • wfjackson3

    At least half of the things you write seem to be valid for me. Maybe I should spend some time trying to copy you?

    tl;dr version:
    I have spent most of the past 6 months copying the startup behaviors of other people. Some of it has worked, some of it has not. I certainly have learned lots about sales, marketing, and what not to do. More importantly, I have learned what I don’t like to do. I figured out what I am good at and also what is most important right now.

    Novelty is perhaps only useful when you are in a novel area. For those of us that are new or inexperienced at something, we need to learn and get caught up before we try to get too fancy for ourselves.

  • couldn’t agree more. this is how i got started and how I continued to develop as an engineer and then business person. i wrote something similar here (which offended some people): http://tentblogger.com/steal/

  • couldn’t agree more. imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and a key to finding your voice in multiple disciplines – like you highlighted. One of my favourite quotes on the whole melange is by Jim Jarmusch:

    “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.” “