How to Not Write Like an Asshole

Don't suck at the thing you spend 90% of your day doing.

September 28, 2015

The average person writes like an incoherent, babbling asshole.

Run on sentences, meaningless words and awful sentence structure. It’s horrible.

It’s especially awful considering most people spend 90% of their work day emailing, texting, or Facebook-ing, so they look like an asshole multiple times throughout the day. People need to become better writers if they spend most of their days doing it.

I’m not saying they need to be the next Hemingway. Far from it. I write for a living yet only consider myself a slightly above average writer. I ain’t grammar Nazi either. Hell, I barely know the difference between an adverb and adjective. I’m just saying that if you don’t want to sound like an asshole then you need to improve your writing.

Thankfully, I’m here to teach a simple trick that’ll make anyone a better writer.


The best shortcut to become a good writer

The easiest way to become a better writer is to copy great writers. It’s that simple.

Now, I have a feeling that when I said “copy great writers,” you think I meant you should try and write like them. That’s not what I meant. When I say you should copy great writers, I mean you should literally copy their best work, word-for-word, and preferably by hand.

This process is called copywork and it’s mind-numbingly simple. You barely have to think. All you have to do is sit down with your favorite book, article, or blog post and copy it. Copywork is the fastest and best way to become a better writer. But for some reason very few people know about it.

Allow me to elaborate.

The lost art of copywork

Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1455, Christian priests were urged to “Ora et labora — to pray and work.” While they spent a small portion of their time tidying the monastery and doing other priestly tasks, most of their day was spent copying the Bible by hand.

They didn’t do this just because it was the only way to distribute the word of God, but because copying the Bible by hand was the most sacred combination of both prayer and work. They believed that when they copied the Bible their hand was being directed by God.

Jews did this too (and still do). One of the 613 Jewish commandments says that every Jewish man must copy the Torah by hand at least once in their lifetime. In case you’re wondering, that typically takes about a year and a half.

The concept of copywork doesn’t end with religious folks. Even after the invention of the printing press, copywork was the primary method that American schools used to teach handwriting, grammar, and sentence structure. Students spent hours copying Shakespeare and Plutarch. It’s no wonder your grandparents wrote such lovely birthday cards.

But as we entered into the 20th century, the practice of copywork faded away. Perhaps it was because copywork is incredibly unsexy. It’s boring, tedious, and hard work. Imagine spending a few hours a day copying The Catcher in The Rye. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Well, it kind of is. Thankfully a few minutes a day is enough to see a big improvement in your writing.

Another reason why copywork isn’t popular today is because we’ve become obsessed with being creative. “Copy someone else’s work?” you gasp, “Isn’t that plagiarism?” Kind of, yes, but it’s good for you. Think about.

How do folks learn to play guitar? They watch music videos and imitate their favorite bands, spending years performing other people’s work before ever writing their own songs.

Source: Flickr

Same with cooking. When you want to learn to cook, what do you do? You follow a recipe that you know tastes delicious.

And how about drawing? As a kid, you’d put a piece of paper over a picture and trace it. Then, after doing that over and over again you were able to draw the picture on your own.

It’s obvious that the imitation method works, so why don’t we learn it in school anymore?

Instead of copywork, teachers today spend most of their time discussing the theory of writing and analyzing famous pieces of literature. Students are asked to deconstruct a sentence and pick out nouns and verbs. This sounds like a great idea, but it’s not. If you had three months to become a good writer, you’d be better off copying The Great Gatsby word for word instead of writing an essay on what the green light actually was.

Don’t believe me?

It’s easy to assume great writers are born great. Why? Because that means you don’t have to work hard. It’s easier to think someone was born talented. It’s intimidating knowing that to be great at anything you must grow from nothing to something.

But guess what? Like any other skill, many of the greatest writers sucked at first. That’s why they turned to copywork.

Jack London

Jack London wrote The Call of The Wild and White Fang, both great American classics. Before getting famous, London spent hours a day copying Rudyard Kipling’s writing by hand. London was entirely self-educated and used copywork to learn the texture and rhythm of Kipling’s work.

At one point, London says about Kipling: “As to myself, there is no end of Kipling in my work. I have even quoted him. I would never possibly have written anywhere near the way I did had Kipling never been. True, true, every bit of it.”

Hunter S. Thompson

In terms of prose mechanics, The Great Gatsby is as close to perfect as any book ever written can be. Scott F. Fitzgerald’s voice is so subtle and smooth. That’s why Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby in its entirety while working on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way.

Benjamin Franklin

Before he was a politician, Benjamin Franklin ran the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper. To improve his writing, Franklin used copywork to learn to write like his competitors. Here’s how he describes it in his autobiography:

“About this time I met with an odd volume of The Spectator – I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it.

With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.”


How to do it

Step 1: Pick a writer who you want to be like
When I started doing copywork, I wanted to become a copywriter, so I copied everything I could find by David Ogilvy, Joe Sugarman, and Gary Halbert. I started by writing out this entire website. After that, I moved on to The Great Gatsby.

To start with copywork, pick an author you love. Copywork is hard work, and you’ll spend a lot of time with whomever you decide to copy, so you need to love their work.

Step 2: Buy a ton of legal notebooks
Studies have shown that people learn better when they write by hand versus typing. So, for copywork it’s best to do all the copying by hand. I prefer using yellow legal notepads as they’re easy to read and cheap.

Step 3: Start writing
I suggest copying your favorite author for 10 minutes each day. It’s that simple.
Some people, like Naval Ravikant (founder of AngelList) will write the same piece of text everyday, or at the very least, right before they start writing. Ravikant copies a short article written by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.

When I first started with copywork, I spent 30 minutes each morning copying a different sales letter. I did this every day for three months. Now, before writing an article, I typically copy a handful of paragraphs from The Great Gatsby.

Don’t be a bubbling, incoherent asshole. Do copywork.

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