09 September 2009

Learn to Write by Copying a Book or a Story Word for Word

by Kris Madden http://www.krismadden.com.

Hunter S. Thompson copied over Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, word for word, on his typewriter, because he wanted to know what it felt like to write his favorite book.

When I learned this fact, I thought it a waste of time, to copy the text of a book that was already in print. Upon further investigation, I found Thompson had copied over the “The Great Gatsby” in its entirety not once. But twice. To repeat such a lengthy, laborious and tediously intense task twice over, could only mean that the process had something to offer to writers.

So I tried it myself, and copied over The Great Gatsby from a store bought paperback to Microsoft Word 2007 on my computer. And by the end of the first page of the book, I was already picking up techniques and lessons on writing I had never heard of before. I saw the text in a new way. In re-typing the text, I was able to see what it would have been like if Fitzgerald had written The Great Gatsby in MS Word.

I was fascinated to see words underlined in red squiggles because the computer’s dictionary could not find them. Or lines underlined in olive-green, because they were not grammatically correct. I laughed at the thought of a computer program trying to tell Fitzgerald how to make a sentence better, and then I realized that I was letting the computer do the same thing to me. I thought about all the sentences that I had thrown out on account of them being underlined, and I wondered if I had made a mistake in doing so.

Aside from mental lessons, I also learned several writing techniques and grammar. Specifically, in The Great Gatsby, I learned about Fitzgerald’s use of the hyphen. It occurs often throughout the book, but I had never noticed the technique when I read the text. I learned his hyphen-technique—in typing out countless incidents of this—was done to give the reader a quick bit of information, almost in to the reader’s subconscious, and then continue on with the story.

I gained so much through copying the book over that I copied over other texts as well. I copied over texts to learn how to do specific scenes or dialogue., or action sequences in my own writing. Every time, I took in something new. The lessons I learned were greater in their scope than I had picked up from reading dozens of "how to write" articles by freelancing writers or books by seasoned authors. I not only learned about the techniques, but I also learned how to use them when I was writing. And what’s more? I learned them from the best teachers in the world.

Being a musician and artist from a young age, the idea of learning through copying a book should have come to me much sooner. As a musician, I spent countless hours in my bedroom playing my records over and over and learning how to play popular songs so that I could learn to write my own. And as an artist I sat at the living-room table with a comic book, copying over every detail, to learn how to draw. Yet, when it comes to writing, many authors do not employ this same learning technique.

As writers, much of the advice we get is: "Sit down at your typewriter, and mash the keys. Repeat until you have 300 pages, and then throw out 150 of them." While this sage advice teaches discipline and aides in developing an author’s style.  I wish someone had said, "Sit down at your typewriter with an award-winning book, mash the keys the same way the author of that award-winning book did, and copy over every character and symbol from start to finish." Then you can learn how to mash the keys the ways the pros do, rather than your amateur chimp writer.


  1. This is absolutely brilliant. I will be starting tomorrow, I'll have to find a good book though, Gatsby just didn't do it for me. I know I'm going to get so much out this exercise. On top of the writing lessons including: typing, commitment, and consistency. I'm so excited thank you for this post.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I also write for GearLive (http://comics.gearlive.com) and you can find some more how-to write articles over there, but for comics.

    Or you can find the exact links on my website: krismadden.com/my-writing/


  3. You know, I have thought of doing this before, but always thought it sounded nearly sacrilegious to use a book I really loved by an author I admired. The idea of using a book that I didn't care much for was worse: I wouldn't be able to keep myself from changing or fixing things. Upon further review, however, the idea definitely has merit, and perhaps in addition to teaching myself techniques I will derive some inspiration for my own creative work. Thanks for the article!

  4. How interesting. I had never thought to do this, but I can definitely see the benefits. I think I'll have to try this soon!

  5. This is a fantastic idea.
    I plan to do this immediately.

    And I'm going to take it to the next level:
    I will attempt to type the entirety of Eudora Welty's Pulitzer-Prize-winning "The Optimist's Daughter" on my Royal HH typewriter, which is (to the best of my ability to determine) the model on which Welty actually wrote the thing.

    I see a whole series of these, assuming I succeed with this first attempt. "The Road" typed on an Olivetti Lettera. "Charlotte's Web" on an Underwood.

    I will then resist the temptation to sell my machine on ebay using the legalese line: "This machine was used to type EVERY WORD of Eudora Welty's Pulitzer-Prize-winning..."

  6. Just to be pedantic – you use an en or em rule to set off parenthetical phrases, not hyphens.

    1. I firmly support being pendantic in every way :).

  7. You do, but F. Scott did not.

  8. I have been doing this for non-fiction, technical books in game theory, for about 2 years.

    But, instead of the computer or typewriter, I copy the text paragraph by paragraph in long hand.

    I re-write each paragraph. And then try to assemble the author's thoughts in my own voice. Slower, but for texts you have come to appreciate, there is no better way to understand the author's point of view.

  9. Kris – This is very sage advice indeed; even for 'advanced' creative writers. The exact point of view; (of the Author) cannot be accomplished - using any other method.

    You certainly shine the bright light of savvy onto this fashion of learning. Bravo - Good show.

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