Why Good Writers Copy

Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci
Before I knew that I wanted to be a writer, I used to hand write out the books and passages that I loved.  I didn’t keep them anywhere special–this was grade five.  I kept pages of copied words in my desk.  Every now and then, I would take them out and read them over.  Except one day my teacher saw what I was doing and pulled me aside.

“That’s cheating,” he said.  “You can’t do that.”

“I’m just trying to keep the words,” I said.

My teacher frowned.  “People who copy end up in jail,” he said.  “That’s just the way it is.”

Horrified, I threw out all of my copied pages and I gave up the copying game for building The Most Amazing Snow Fort Of All Time.

It wasn’t until a little while ago that I started to see what it was that I had been doing.  I’d always known that there was never a nefarious scheme to steal the words that I had written down, but I’d never realized that my goal in all of that tireless scribbling had been a form of writing practice.

A little while ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Winter at a local writing seminar.  In person, he is affable and easy to talk to.  While telling stories about his own writing practice, giving examples of writers that he likes and even singing a song, there was one piece of advice that really stood out to me:

michael winters quote

What I realized was that all of the great writers start out by playing with the writing that is already out there.  It’s not illegal to write in somebody else’s voice! (As long as you are telling your own story).  If you’re feeling adventurous (or maybe just in need of something new to try) why not choose a story that challenges you?  Write in the voice of that author to find out how it feels. At the very least, you’ll discover something new about yourself.


*Photo by Michael Caven.


  1. Sometimes when I’m in a writing rut, I’ll take a break to read something I love, and it will help reset my writing voice, so to speak. Great post!

  2. I feel like I’ve been hearing recently that a number of writers will copy favorite passages from other authors’ books to do just what you say: practice. It’s a great sort of warm up, but also inspires and gets you thinking about what you like in a piece of writing and teaches you something. Awesome post!

    Also, this totally reminds me of Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. Have you glanced at that? It is an entire book, but here is a good brief list from it: http://austinkleon.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/poster-0-500×666.gif

    1. Thanks Julie! I will definitely check that out. It’s true that writing out favourite passages seems to spark something–almost like a response to the writing. Plus, it’s a great way to get out of a writing rut. What are your favourite authors to imitate?

  3. When I don’t know what to write, I transcribe something of Cormac McCarthy’s. Seeing how a great writer’s voice flows activates that part of the brain that contains my own voice, I think.

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