Recently, I’ve wanted to improve my writing. When I looked up ways to improve your writing, one exercise popped up everywhere as a recommendation. To become a better writer, you have to copy the great ones. This is known as “Copywork.”
The format of the exercise looks this:
The goal is to understand how the author writes and expresses their ideas. This was practiced by many famous authors throughout history. And it's an exercise many still swear by today.
The benefits include:
This Copywork exercise looked promising. For the sake of documenting this, and out of my curiosity, I wanted to see if I could do this daily writing exercise, but condense an entire year’s worth of work in just one week.
The author I chose to study was Seth Godin. He’s the author of 19 best-selling books. He’s a prolific writer who posts to his blog every single day, which has over 7500 entries. He’s been on our show, and I’ve taken his AltMBA course. Seth Godin has a way with using few words, yet having great impact. Something I highly admire and want to emulate in my writing.
My goals for the seven day Copywork challenge:
On the first day of writing, I went to Seth Godin’s blog and started by copying his top 100 posts. I figured this would be a good place to start since he hand selected them.
I blocked out my day into (4) 90-minute focus sprints of uninterrupted writing time, followed by 30-minute breaks to decompress. By my calculations*, I should be able to finish 13 entries, per 90-minute block. Totaling 52 in a day. And 365(+1) by the end of the week.
[*I did a trial run before the challenge, and averaged a time of 7 min, per copied blog entry. What I didn’t account for was fatigue, distractions, and tech failures.]
As I went through that first day I quickly realized how hard it was to maintain that quota. I got bored, real fast. Long into a sprint, I would find myself making many spelling mistakes. And I was left feeling a bit cranky and drained by the end of the day.
Three days into the process, life happened. My new MacBook died on me. The city decided to entertain me with jackhammer construction outside. This all put me way behind my quota. I was only at 56/365 entries midway through. So I tried to move faster and work longer, but I ended up hitting a limit with my retention.
By this point, I started to feel like the assignment was no longer serving my goals. I started to doubt my ability to complete the project. I was burning out. My only hope was that I would at least see some improvement when this was all over. It felt like I was crawling uphill on a marathon I was not prepared to compete in.
So I had to make some adjustments if I wanted to see this through.
In the last three days of this writing challenge, I intentionally slowed my pace. I told myself to forget the daily quota of entries, and to focus on retention. This small tweak helped me adjust my relationship with the exercise; it changed from frustration to enjoyment.
Taking the pressure off the numbers helped me get a lot more out of each blog post I rewrote. This helped to serve my goal better, which was to understand how Seth writes, so I can emulate the best qualities into my work.
Suddenly Seth’s writing became a lot more clear to me.
The second part of this challenge was to write 3 original articles of my own.
Once I changed gears, to focus on my thoughts, it just flowed. It was unlike anything I’ve felt before as a writer.
[Typically it takes me a few weeks to get a written article out. I usually spend a lot of time coming up with the draft, refining it, until I feel like it’s decent enough to be seen by the public. (Much of my work is still in draft mode cause I’m either too lazy to finish, or too scared to publish it). But this time was different.]
After doing a sprint of writing, my brain was on fire, full of ideas. My body was already in motion. And because I identified a few writing qualities I wanted to emulate from Seth, I had a set of very clear constraints to work within. This helped me focus on sharing my idea, rather than thinking about the form it would take.
I created my first post for this exercise, in under two hours. And I was happy with it. It was the fastest I’ve ever written and published something. To be honest, the majority of that time was spent selecting the right cover image. It wasn’t even the writing.
After a week doing this writing assignment, I was able to copy a total of 102 blog posts from Seth Godin
While I’m very short of the original goal of 365 entries, I am not disappointed at all. And that’s because I learned so much during this week. About myself, about Seth Godin’s writing style, and how much production I can crank out in a short amount of time under constraint.
After going through so much of Seth’s writing, I recognized a lot of patterns and formulas he uses. Here are a few things I’ve observed:
Paradigm shift. Seth uses each post to shift your paradigm. Taking something you think you know, and invites you to look at it from a different perspective. I thought this was a powerful way to engage a reader.
Every post by him has this intent in mind. Knowing this helped me focus my writing, to make it purpose-driven. This also improved my ability to be a ruthless editor of my work, and strip down to only the essential words needed to communicate a thought.
Response to the title. Seth often uses an intriguing title that pulls you in. Once he’s hooked you, he often responds to his title in the first line of the post. Like a comedian setting up a joke, then delivering the punch line. Seth uses this technique to delight the reader and draw them in closer.
Master of line breaks. Just like a designer uses negative space, Seth uses line breaks to emphasize, pause, or create a dramatic shift in his writing. Something that I became more conscious of when it comes to how I compose my thoughts on a blank page.
These were just a few of the many that I’ve observed and emulated.
The beautiful thing about this challenge is that it forced me to create a system for learning. Rules to follow. A commitment to keep. And a better way to make sense of information, and apply it.
As I went through this process, I documented everything in Notion, to keep track of my progress. For each post, I rewrote everything word for word. I took notes on the key takeaways, and any patterns I observed in Seth’s writing style.
I also took meta notes about my personal reactions and emotional state. At the end of each day, I wrote a reflection log. Summarizing 3 things I learned. What I could do better tomorrow. And my closing thoughts.
My process in 4 steps:
1. Intentional consumption. I read each post with a clear goal in mind: to extract a lesson, and to make observations about Seth’s writing style. Actively seeking information helped me pay attention to what I was reading, versus just copying it.
2. Distilling and reflection. I took notes to summarize what I learned in every post, which forced me to recall the information I had just read. This greatly helped with the retention issues I ran into at the beginning. I also took notes on my thoughts and feelings, which helped me make adjustments to my process.
3. Creation. The most important part of my process was the application of what I learned. The moment I started writing my articles, emulating Seth’s style of writing, I committed to memory what I had been copying and observing. That’s because I went from passive learning to active learning. The most effective way to retain information.
4. Adjust. When you design a new system to follow, you have to make iterative adjustments to improve its effectiveness. When I noticed that chasing a daily quota of 52 entries became counter-productive towards my goal, I changed my process to focus on the quality of consumption, not the quantity. This adjustment greatly improved my relationship with the exercise and what I got out of it.
During this one week challenge, I published 3 original articles. That’s as much as I normally do in a whole year.
And even though the challenge is over, I’ve experienced a bit of an afterglow effect from it. I still feel the itch to read, to write, and make. It’s like the ink from my pen can’t stop flowing, and I have to get something on paper.
Since completing this writing challenge, I wrote 6 more posts in the following week.
In other words, my writing productivity is exponentially higher because I developed a habit and have momentum I’m building on.
I’m so happy with the results of this challenge, that I’m continuing this exercise, with a new author to learn from (“The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield). I know there’s much I can learn in between the pages of this book.
If you want to become a better writer, I highly recommend Copywork as an exercise. It’s an easy and effective way to build momentum and learn. If you do plan to take this challenge on, don’t feel obligated to do it all in a week. Take it slow, give it time, and focus on building the habit of practice. Also, make sure to reflect on and apply what you learn.
I’d like to leave you with this quote I read from Seth Godin’s blog about writer’s block, which has encouraged me to write more in public:
“Writer’s block isn’t hard to cure.
Just write poorly. Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better. Do it every day. Every single day.
If you know you have to write something every single day, even a paragraph, you will improve your writing. If you’re concerned with quality, of course, then not writing is the problem, because zero is perfect and without defects. Shipping nothing is safe.”
- Seth Godin