Copying is the best way to start.
Get your fingers and mind moving, and the words will start flowing.
There are two easiest ways to start running: Set out from the top of a hill, or take a dog for a run. The former sets you up for success; on a hill, one foot in front of another quickly builds enough momentum, you can’t help but run. The latter’s more direct, pulling you along, ready or not.
And so it is with filling the blank page, with writing, coding, and building anything new from scratch. The easiest way to start is to get a running start, one finger moving after another, by copying. Better that than a looming deadline dragging you along.
Copying is how I start writing. Headphones, music, then transcribe the lyrics. Slowly at first, typing out perhaps Adele’s ponderous “I built a house for love to grow,” then faster as the crescendo builds to “Let it be known that I tried.”
Like a scribe of old, painstakingly copying texts a character at a time, you’ll notice the lyricist’s quirks and quiet genius, anticipate the next word before it’s spoken, gain an almost “intimate connection to the text and its meaning,” as artist Morgan O’Hara found after hand-copying the US Constitution. You’ll miss a word here, a syllable there, then improvise your way to fill them in before the next lines float past.
Most importantly, you’ll start writing. One finger and letter after another, words into lines into paragraphs, until you’re ready to let go and write on your own.
Copying. It’s the best way to get words to flow.
It’s also a way to set the mood and tone of your piece. I’ll shift the inspiration around, reading and perhaps copying bits of a book about tech history before writing a story of how some app came to be, or of a more straightforward text like William Zinsser’s On Writing Well before writing a tutorial.
Copying, again, is not the goal. It’s merely a technique to start, to “Steal like an artist,” as Austin Kleon’s eponymous book teaches. “You are the sum of your influences,” Kleon writes. “You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.” So copy something good, something directionally similar to what you want to create, then get on with creating it, with that spark of the old master’s style ringing in your ear.
Writing isn’t the only creative endeavor where copying can give you a creative push to start. Coding and design follow much the same pattern. Your average course doesn’t focus on the ideas behind code libraries and frameworks. It instead shows you how to use them to build something real—and if you type as they talk, you can build the same thing in real-time. It’s a copy, a faint one at that, just enough to get you going.
That’s where it’s easy to get stuck, to take the copy as a framework to build on rather than a toy to break, remix, and learn along the way.
Copying on its own has a negative value, even, if you intend to publish your finished work. “Copying skips understanding. Understanding is how you grow.” wrote Basecamp founder Jason Fried on why to not simply copy their work. “When you copy it, you miss that.”
Thus the danger of copying Wikipedia to finish an essay or StackOverflow to fix an error. You get the solution without figuring out what made it tick.
So you tweak, remix, play with the copy enough to learn from it, change the words around enough to build a new song.
“Good artists copy,” Steve Jobs loved to quote Picasso. “Great artists steal.”
Copying directly’s easy enough. That’s why it’s a great way to get started. Then delete it all and keep going. That’s where the steal comes in.
The trick in school was never to avoid Wikipedia entirely; that was impossible once print encyclopedias went the way of the phone book. It was to dig deeper, to find the sources behind the Wikipedia page, read them in context, and articulate your conclusions about why things came to be. The same with code tutorials, or copying StackOverflow, or the notorious sketching guides where you start with an oval and somehow, magically, end up drawing an owl.
You don’t learn by copying; that’s merely how you start. You learn by remixing, by taking the original as inspiration to see what’s possible, then crafting your own new thing, something connected to the past yet your own new thing.
You just might have to copy a bit to get your creativity flowing.
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