Does copying something offer creative insights on how a great idea can come to life?
The writer Hunter S Thompson allegedly typed out (on an old fashioned typewriter) the whole of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - in order to "see how it felt" to write a literary masterpiece.
It's also been reported that he did the same with Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. He did all this while working at The New Yorker, and must have been a popular figure with the stationery department.
So what did Hunter learn by engaging in this process? Was it that his writing could only work by quaffing Chivas Regal while smoking a pack of Dunhills, followed by a debauched coke-snorting session?
We may never know.
But something we do know is that it's hard to copy things and not come away with a strong sense of how it's constructed. When you copy something, you're getting up close and personal with the structure and how it all hangs together. With writing, that obviously pertains to the language, flow and rhythm of each sentence and paragraph.
If this was a drawing, picture or pattern, you would become aware of details of line and form in an equivalent way. Some people scoff at the idea of doing this with tracing paper. But by tracing, you can sometimes create muscle memory and proficiency more quickly, than if you drew a shape multiple times freehand.
Obviously, copying something then passing it off as your own is plagiarism. But copying something - purely as an exercise for the brain - is a way to speed up 'learning from the best'. It gives you a more accessible route to a benchmark, which can inspire you to go off on a tangent with your own, new ideas.
And going off on a tangent is something we think Hunter would probably like.
If you're interested in what typing out The Great Gatsby feels like, check out this video series below from Elliot Chan (who also makes other great videos on writing). He's been doing it for an hour every week since March 2020.
Copying takes commitment. Still, it's a quicker way to learn what works. And Elliot shows us it's thankfully possible to do without consuming industrial levels of cigs, booze and drugs.