29 May 2012

Learn to Write by Copying a Book Word for Word

by Kris Madden

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 a text 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, 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. 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" books. 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 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.

from the PPM Archive Sept 2009


  1. I really enjoyed this post, I found it very interesting and it taught me a valuable lesson. So thanks!

  2. Western culture places a lot of emphasis on pure originality - either you've got it or you don't. A lot of people can benefit from copying the masters to improve and expand their craft! I totally agree with this post.