How to Take a Massive Leap Forward in Your Writing Through One Simple Exercise
As a historian of alternative spirituality, I strive to understand people who lived by unusual and sometimes misunderstood ideas. I study figures, from occultists to Satanists to positive-thinkers, whose inner lights, depending on your perspective, can seem bizarre, brilliant or some mixture of the two. Navigating this unsettled terrain requires a balance of respect and critical judgment.
In finding my voice as a historical writer, I benefited years ago from an exercise that I am convinced can help anyone to write and express a point of view more clearly and persuasively.
This simple and revelatory exercise came to me from an MacArthur-winning essayist and social critic. First, identify a piece of critical writing that you admire — perhaps an essay, article or review — but above all, something that captures the vitality and discrimination that you would like to bring to the page. Then, recopy it by hand.
The act of copying a piece by hand — not on a device— reveals the innards and guts of what the writer is doing. Writing with pencil and paper compels you to become mentally and even physically involved in dissecting the work. You gain new perspective on how the writer says things, how he uses examples and evidence, how each word maximizes his meaning, and how he either discloses details or saves them for later.
One piece that I have personally used in this exercise is a complex yet straightforward obituary of the controversial writer and explorer Heinrich Harrer, written by New York Times reporter Douglas Martin.
Harrer, who died in 2006, was a complicated and disturbing man. As a friend of the Dalai Lama’s and the author of the 1953 memoir Seven Years in Tibet, Harrer helped open the Western world to a realization of Tibetan culture and its endangerment under Chinese rule. Several years before Harrer’s death, however, it came to light that the Austrian mountaineer had enlisted in the Nazi storm troopers in 1933 — while they were still illegal in Austria — and five years later joined Hitler’s SS. Harrer insisted that he committed no atrocities and wore his Nazi uniform only once, on his wedding day. The author’s conflicting roles — as storm trooper and the chronicler of a threatened culture — were hauntingly asymmetrical.
Martin’s obituary handled the matter with remarkable grace and effectiveness, featuring one of the best opening sentences I know in any journalistic profile:
Heinrich Harrer, a swashbuckling explorer who told of his magical life of conquering the world’s highest peaks and tutoring the young Dalai Lama when Tibet seemed as exotic as Mars, only to have news of his Nazi past mar his final years, died Jan 7 in Friesach, Austria.
In copying Martin’s piece, I could see his diplomacy of tone (not one histrionic word), his use of dramatic yet graspable imagery (“exotic as Mars”), and his fearlessness of the long sentences necessary to capture the switchbacks of Harrer’s career.
There is a brilliance in a good writer’s word choices that no exercise can fully capture. But writing, like musical composition, is dissectible so that its connective joints and tissues can be seen.
I used this exercise to analyze a piece of sports writing about the All-Star pitcher Barry Zito, whose training regimen included spiritual and motivational exercises (topics of deep interest to me). The 2003 New York Times article, “A Pitcher Outside the Curve“ by Jack Curry, displayed the freedom of the writer’s choices. Curry eschewed a linear framework and bounced from topic to topic, but always with sound transitions and conjoining thoughts. The writer trusted his associative instincts.
Hand-copying Curry’s article gave me a sense of how to structure a piece according to my own affinities and priorities. In fact, a profile I wrote about Zito in 2003, shortly after discovering the Curry piece, reinvigorated my own passion for writing — and led me to focus on metaphysical history, which resulted in my first two books, Occult America (Bantam, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, 2014), and several beyond.
I used this exercise more recently with a different kind of writing. I recopied an advertisement from 1965 in which the ad man David Ogilvy argued for the virtues of Reader’s Digest. Ogilvy had perfected a form of copy-writing that is little-seen today: full-page, essay-length ads.
These broadsides, sometimes bylined but often not, were a familiar presence in the glossy magazines of the 1960s and ’70s, expounding on the merits of Volkswagen Beetles, Hathaway Shirts, Guinness Stout — and, in Ogilvy’s hands, Reader’s Digest. As a pioneer of the essay format, Ogilvy insisted on two qualities in such ads: 1) they supply research-driven, factual information and 2) they demonstrate stylistic excellence. Ogilvy excelled on both counts. The ad man was a master of honorable persuasion, unlike his more manipulative contemporary Edward Bernays.
Ogilvy’s essay is reprinted in his book Ogilvy on Advertising, a work I recommend not only to writers but especially to book editors (a field in which I worked for nearly thirty years). It is a master class in how to write excellent flap and backcover copy, one of the few remaining forms of the essay-length advertisement that Ogilvy pioneered. Anyone who thinks that flap copy isn’t advertising doesn’t belong in publishing.
Ogilvy’s defense of Reader’s Digest demonstrates how to support your claims with honest framing of the opposing side’s position and with calmly stated counter-specifics. (Imagine that in today’s world.) A typical passage reads:
Some highbrows may look down their noses at The Digest, charging it with superficiality and over-simplification. There is a modicum of justice in this charge; you can learn more about the Congo if you read about it in Foreign Affairs Quarterly, and you can learn more about Abraham Lincoln in Carl Sandburg’s books about him. But have you time?
I believe Ogilvy’s work should be studied today by anyone engaged in any form of written communication, whether artistic or advertising-oriented — and the two forms overlap more often than commonly thought. Earlier I mentioned flap copy. This is also true for fundraising appeals, grant applications, book proposals, and exhibition catalogues.
Finally, the overall aim of this writing exercise is not to be imitative. It is to strengthen your own voice and methods. By dissecting how good writers make their way through a topic you will recognize certain things that you’re already doing — and that may require improving — and other things that you’re not doing. Determining how an effective writer assembles his or her work— by dissecting and reassembling that work — opens you to a new world of possibilities.
(An earlier version of this essay appeared in HuffPost.)