Copywork was the primary way in which children were taught English back in the 1800s and it’s seeing a bit of a resurgence lately. Basically, it’s when you take a text of high-quality writing and copy it word-for-word. It’s purported to help with handwriting and reading skills as well as sentence structure, spelling, plot development, and general writing skills.
However, it appears—at least to me—to have a couple of inherent flaws.
What is good writing?
A lot of what I’ve been able to find as examples for copywork falls into two categories: classic literature and scripture. The problem with those is that writing has changed a great deal. There’s a reason that nobody writes like Dickens anymore, and that’s because it’s old fashioned. Even within the classics, you still have an element of personal preference. It’s very hard to objectively say who is a good writer and who isn’t. Going back to Dickens, a very quick Google search on “Why Dickens was a terrible writer” yields an awful lot of results. Every writer has bad habits, even the greats of yesteryear, and if you’re teaching people to copy that writer they’re going to pick those up as well.
Even if you’re looking for modern examples of great writing, you can come against a brick wall, as opinions are entirely subjective. Some people talk about how amazing Fifty Shades of Grey is, after all.
Does the act of copying make you a better writer?
I can see the argument for handwriting and spelling. They still do similar things for that in schools today; give children words that they have to copy and/or memorise and then write them out. But many fans of copyworking look on it as a tool to improve writing skills in both children and adults. I found one study of thirty people which showed that a group who copied an abstract piece of artwork showed more creativity afterwards. The majority of other reasons to do it seem to stem from the fact that people used to do it and that many great writers and artists learned this way.
The problem with this is that the world was a very different place two hundred, a hundred, fifty, twenty, even ten years ago. The world has changed massively even since the end of the 20th century. Applying teaching methods of the 1800s to today’s world doesn’t seem to be the best idea. Education was not of great import, especially if you were poor, a woman, a person of colour, or your parents needed you to earn your keep. For many, the only way to learn was to copy others and absorb their work. That just isn’t the case now. Every single aspect of writing has multiple and detailed explanations, analysis and examples of how to apply it available at the touch of a button. We don’t have to learn by copying Dickens; we can study the aspects of Dickens’ writings, learn the theory behind why he did what he did and apply best practice to our own writing and learn that way.
Are the skills transferrable?
Learning to write well is a skill that all writers must master. I could learn to write exactly like Dickens but can I then use those skills to write a modern crime thriller set in Los Angeles? Surely the better way is to learn the basic skills of writing, apply those to my own work, and keep writing until the skills become second nature?
All in all, I’m not convinced about copywork. I went into it with an open mind but I couldn’t find anything that convinced me that it’s a worthwhile avenue to pursue to make you a better writer.
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© 2018 David Chitty
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David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.