Friday, May 27, 2011

copy work - A Friday Challenge

Two ideas came to me as I lay abed this morning thinking of today's challenge. The first was the way fine art used to be taught - or at least one of its methods. Students would paint the masterpieces. Or draw them, or sculpt them. They might do this for quite awhile before they were freed to follow their own inclinations.

The other idea was a memory of something that used to happen in my own early childhood. Most of you will not remember this because it isn't your memory to draw from, but many children growing up in the first half of the last century did copywork. The habit lingered a bit into the fifties but not much beyond. Children would be given a piece of text from the Bible or Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray and told to copy it in their best long hand. The idea was to improve their hand-writing but it also did something else. It got the rhythm of good writing into their hands and minds.

Here is a piece from the home-schooling site above that I linked to:
By and large, the greatest writers in the English language developed their writing skills through copywork and narration. Neither Shakespeare nor Jane Austen ever enrolled in a creative writing course; Dickens never studied journalism; Robert Louis Stevenson did not take classes in How to Write for Children (or for anyone else, for that matter)! Living before the invention of photocopy machines and computers, anything they wanted to keep a written record of, had to be copied down by hand: so copywork was a normal part of everyday life. Our children obviously live in a different age, but if we hope for them to become great writers, we can do no better than provide them with the same kind of training as these, and other, writers of the past.
 
I challenge you to do copywork. Pick a piece of writing - a page or two - from a writer who's writing you admire. It could be in the genre that you are writing but I would suggest you look for someone who's been proven in terms of their writing not their sale-ability. Now, copy that - not in long-hand unless that is how you write your own work, but on the computer. I guarantee you will experience a weird and wondrous feeling as you do so.

If you are hell-bent on improving your writing, you may do this exercise daily for a month. You might choose a variety of writer's or stick to one or two. I am going to do this. I think it will help with my slim grasp on grammar for one thing, and it will also help me with my agility with language. Again, it is brain-work, like the Kaizen is, for it lays down paths in our neural forest which we'll be able to find again and again. I don't know why education got away from it. Part of the massive dumming down movement, I suppose.


18 comments:

Clarissa Draper said...

I have heard of this writing exercise and I have heard that it really works. Some even suggest that when you have writer's block, start typing a page of a book in the genre you're writing and then continue with your book. I haven't tried it but I will someday if really stuck.

Jan Morrison said...

Hi Clarissa - I just did it. I took the first two pages of Grahame Greene's The Quiet American (my favourite book of all time) and a passage from John Iriving's Until I Find You. Now I'm working!

salarsenッ said...

Writing exercises can be so valuable. I've never done this one specifically, though. :)

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I love this idea, Jan! I'm trying it...thanks!

Jan Morrison said...

Salarsen - give it a try and tell me how it goes.

Elizabeth - I think it helped me a bit and I could see that while one was revising it might even be more helpful.

Karen Walker said...

What an interesting idea. I am going to try this, Jan. Thanks.
Karen

Margot Kinberg said...

Jan - what a creative idea!!! Neurological research suggests that that when we lay down neurological connections in our brains, they get strengthened when we keep practising like that. So it makes sense that this might work. Thanks!

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

What a fabulous idea. I think I did this in elementary school because we did proper handwriting with calligraphy pens and we were often practicing. I still do it with Bible verses, but I'd love to do it with some literature I admire -- to get the feel of writing prose that spectacular.

Amy

Craig said...

Thanks Jan. I"m going to do this. I'm taking a writing course at U of Toronto next month in narrative non fiction, and have started work on my life story. This exercise sounds brilliant, I can already sense the weird and wondrous possibilities of such a simple process.

Jan Morrison said...

Karen - I tried it and am going to keep it up. I like it...
Margot - that's right - we need to keep making paths through the thick jungle of our brains.
Amy - exactly. And it is quite fun to do, I find.
Craig - in your case you might find some narrative non-fiction that you admire and remember it is the writing you must like not just the writer. Let me know what happens. I think the Buddhist chants we recite get into our systems - well, duh, of course they do but I mean, not just in the way they are intended, but as a way to change our language. I was struck while watching season one of Deadwood at the language. It was iambic pentameter for the most part. But when I thought about it - that was a brilliant stroke on the part of the writers (one of whom was Larry McMurtry - Lonesome Dove) because that is what people read when they were forging west - Shakespeare and the Bible.

Su said...

They teach us this in rhetoric, too, which is interesting, and for the same reason: to get the student's brain working in the same way as the master rhetorician's.

Eve said...

Thank you for this post Jan! I remember doing this in elementary school in grades one and two. We spent ages copying out paragraphs from well known books..I agree with you that there has been a massive dumming down in our society. It seems very few people can spell anymore. Advertisers spell most words incorrectly because it seems catchy and hip or something...like 'Cheez Whiz' and 'Froot Loops'...it makes me nuts! I've met seventeen year old people who can't read a clock because all they've ever had is digital. It's insane!
I love how you pointed out that the author should be proven in terms of their writing, not their sale-ability! There's an awful lot of absolutley dreadful crap being published because it's popular..popular doesn't always mean good. There are some excellent authors out there though, but I tend to gravitate towards the classics when it comes to reading.. I haven't read many modern authors who are comparable to Chekov, or Oscar Wilde, or George Orwell.
And the brain-work thing! Did you see the documentary 'Changing your Mind'? It's fantastic. I know that you're right..the paths in our neural forest get stronger and stronger with use, and not only that, they are the source of new paths springing up...it's all so remarkable.
Thanks for this post Jan, I guess you can tell you touched some sort of a nerve! Sorry for the long assed reply! For the next little while I'm going to be busy typing out part one of 'The Idiot'.
Peace to you

Kari Marie said...

I have heard about this but never tried it. I remember seeing it suggested by Sean Connery in Finding Forrestor. Interesting technique that I think I'll try. I need all the help I can get.

Talli Roland said...

I used to work as a copy editor and I can tell you, it's the most boring job on the face of the earth! I'd fall asleep regularly. :) Still, it did help me improve my writing.

Anonymous said...

Appreciate this post. Let me try it out.

Also visit my blog :: quantrim reviews

Anonymous said...

Hi there friends, its fantastic post on the topic of teachingand fully
defined, keep it up all the time.

Here is my webpage pain gone pen ervaringen

Anonymous said...

Magnificent items from you, man. I've keep in mind your stuff previous to and you're simply too
great. I actually like what you have got here, certainly like what you are saying
and the way through which you are saying it. You are making it enjoyable and you still take care of to keep it smart.

I can't wait to read much more from you. That is actually a wonderful website.

My webpage; anybody tried quantrim

Anonymous said...

electronic cigarettes, e cigarette forum, electronic cigarettes, electronic cigarette, electronic cigarette, e cigarette