Most of us have times when we don’t know what to write next. It could be in the middle of a project or in between them, but no matter what we do, we’re stalled. So what can we do to work on our writing when we can’t write? Reading, of course, is one answer, and you certainly should be doing that, but here’s a more active exercise: try copying some of the writing you admire.
Here’s how to do the exercise: find a passage someone else wrote that you think is really well done. Now, copy it. Don’t make a single change. Be very aware that you get the comma, periods and paragraph breaks right. What you are doing is trying to internalize a successful writing rhythm.
How this works is that you will start to get a feel for how the writer you like goes about being who they are. Here’s a bit from The Stand by Stephen King:
Stu, who only understood that they were all in a hell of a pinch, turned Hap’s voice down to a meaningless drone and watched the Chevy pitch and yaw its way on up the road. The way it was going Stu didn’t think it was going to make it much further. It crossed the white line and its left hand tires spumed up dust from the left shoulder. Now it lurched back, held its own lane briefly, then nearly pitched off into the ditch. Then, as if the driver had picked out the big lighted Texaco station sign as a beacon, it arrowed toward the tarmac like a projectile whose velocity is very nearly spent.
If I was going to use King’s The Stand for my copying exercise, I would keep copying for another thousand words or so, but even typing this little section, I notice that he didn’t put a comma after “The way it was going” that I would have put in, and that he used “going” twice in that sentence, so maybe my obsession with removing repeated words isn’t quite as critical as I think. I like his verbs too: crossed, spumed, lurched, pitched, arrowed.
If I copy a passage from another author, like Ray Bradbury, I get a totally different feel:
There were fireworks the very first night, things that you should be afraid of perhaps, for they might remind you of other more horrible things, but these were beautiful, rockets that ascended into the ancient soft air of Mexico and shook the stars apart in blue and white fragments. Everything was good and sweet, the air was that blend of the dead and the living, of the rains and the dusts, of the incense from the church, and the brass smell of the tuba on the bandstand which pulsed out vast rhythms of ‘La Paloma.
Bradbury likes the long sentence here, and I notice his tendency to pair and to list, so the air is “ancient soft,” the fragments were “blue and white,” everything was “good and sweet,” while the air also blended the “dead and the living,” and “rains and the dusts.” His second sentence (did you notice he did this in only two sentences, while King’s passage that was only a tad longer took five sentences?) is mostly a list of connected noun phrases.
Bradbury’s rhythm is different from King, and copying him teaches me different lessons.
Some writer’s rhythms stay in my head longer than others. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, is hard to shake, as is Bradbury, and the point of the exercise isn’t to make my writing become their writing, but by doing this I can feel what they were up to for a few minutes so that I can incorporate what I like best from them into my own toolbox. How I blend my influences becomes my voice, but I don’t think I can go too far wrong if I find myself channeling, just a little bit, the echoes of Bradbury, Le Guin, Bronte, King, Steinbeck, Hemingway or Poe.
Try it. Copy somewhere between 200 to 1,000 words. Tell me what you notice.