Copyworking — The Idea
There is a little experiment I want to run. I have an idea of creating a tool that helps people to get better at writing. I've had this idea for a while, and since it just won't get out of my head, I've decided to dedicate time to test it.
I want to see if there are enough people that have a problem that this tool is intended to solve and understand who these people are.
I plan to document my progress here. In this blog post, I talk about how I discovered the idea and how I plan to test if it's worth pursuing.
About two years ago, I decided to start a blog to share my learnings on software development. I had been writing software for some 8 years by then; I had learned a few things. Laying out my ideas about something I know in a short blog post - how difficult could that be?
It turned out to be tough. Once I opened a text editor, dozens of questions started appearing in my head. How should I structure my posts? What voice and tone should I use? What coding examples to pick? How to start, after all?
I was looking at my favorite blogs. Each author had a unique writing style and each covered a different topic, but they all had something in common that I just couldn't reproduce - their posts were easy to read and understand. These writers were able to convey their ideas in such a natural and simple way that reading them felt like they were talking to you.
I felt dumb. I opened Google and typed "how to write better?"
"Read more" and "write more" were the most common pieces of advice Google threw at me. Okay, that's obviously important. I had been doing that, but I didn't see my writing improve. I could convey my point in the emails I wrote every day, for instance, but they felt dry and unnatural. My posts left me disappointed. I had to put a lot of effort to write them, and I didn't like the result. Maybe there was something else I could do besides just reading and writing?
There was another piece of advice I found in writing blogs: imitate the writers you enjoy. By doing that, the articles claimed, you would absorb the patterns your favorite authors employ, notice their writing style, learn the structure and the tone they use, and through doing that consistently, you would discover your own writing style.
Okay, that made sense. But how do I do that?
Turns out, there is an exercise that involves copying the passages from the works of the authors you love, word by word. Yes, right. You read a sentence, notice how the author structured it, and then write it down exactly the same way. The exercise is called copywork.
Does it work?
Copywork sounded easy. I could do that. But wouldn't copying someone else's writing word by word be a waste of time? Would it really improve my writing?
There are articles online that talk about the history and the benefits of copywork. Copywork can be done as a warm-up exercise, it can improve your sentence structure and your voice, it can even help you overcome creative block.
Turns out, famous authors used it too. Hunter S. Thompson typed Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms word-by-word. Jack London improved his writing by copying the works of Rudyard Kipling. Steven Pressfield, the author of The War of Art, used to copy Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises word for word, paragraph for paragraph to find his voice.
I decided to try copywork, too.
First, I needed to find writing I enjoy. I decided to cycle between posts from Seth Godin's blog, Nick Cave's letters from The Red Hand Files, and excerpts from Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. These are authors with distinct styles, and all of them I enjoyed. Occasionally, I would also copy posts, Reddit comments, and even Tweets that I came across and that I liked.
I would open two Google Docs windows, side-by-side, paste the writing into the left one, and type it into the right one, sentence by sentence. It felt weird at first, as I often caught myself blindly re-typing sentences without paying much attention to how they are written. I had to slow down and start over, reading each sentence to the end, and only then copying it.
Using Google Docs worked, however, I found it hard to jump back to the writing in the left window to find the last sentence I just typed so I could start reading the next one. I also had to scroll the writing every time I reached the bottom of the page. Those were minor issues, but they were distracting me from the process.
I spent a few hours and coded a tool that would track the sentence I was currently typing, and that would auto-scroll the writing when needed. That allowed me to stay focused on the process without distractions.
I've been doing copywork since then, trying to have at least 2-3 sessions a week. A few things happened:
- My reading process changed. I started paying more attention, trying to notice if there is anything special about the sentence or the paragraph I was reading. Whenever I found something interesting, I would put it into a Google Drive folder so that I would copy it later.
- It became easier to write. Constructing sentences and finding the right words did not require as much effort as it used to. Occasionally, I would be able to write as if in a state of flow - without thinking about how to describe a particular idea.
- My English improved. English is not my native language and it has definitely contributed to the amount of effort I had to put into writing.
I am still not a good writer by any means, but I have definitely improved my writing - and reading - skills, and what is even more important, I started enjoying the process. I believe that the amount of thoughtful reading copywork made me do, allowed me to notice the patterns of good writing and to learn to use them.
Copywork is a great tool for people wanting to improve their writing skills. As of now, there is no dedicated platform that would allow you to collect the writing you enjoy, type it, and keep track of your progress.
Creating such a platform is the idea I have. As a software engineer, I have the urge to spend a few sleepless weeks and just build it. But this is not how I am going to approach this.
Before creating a solution to a problem that I feel I know, I need to understand a few things:
1. Who are the people who use copywork? Are they professional writers? Are they journalists? Do they blog as a hobby? How long have they been writing?
2. What is the problem people using copywork try to solve? Do they want to learn the writing style of a specific author? Do they want to overcome writer's block? Do they do it as a meditative exercise?
3. What is their approach to doing copywork? How often do they do it? What tools do they use? What issues have they faced?
I've also got a few concerns that I need to clear up.
1. Copywork is not a widely-used exercise. There seems to be a lack of awareness of copywork amongst people wanting to learn how to write better. It may require effort to teach people that copywork can help them.
2. There are currently no tools that allow doing copywork online. Having no active competitors is often a bad sign. No competition usually means there is no market.
To summarize, I don't have clarity on whether there are enough people who have a specific problem that copywork can solve and if I can show them that copywork is a valuable exercise that can help them with their problem. I want to get this clarity first, before investing in building anything.
Testing the idea
Building an online service for doing copywork will be a community-led effort. I plan to approach people to understand who they are and what writing-related problems they're trying to solve.
Here's how I'm going to do this:
1. Approach people who have already used copywork That should help me understand my target audience. I will reach out to authors who have blogged about copywork. Ideally, I'd jump on a quick call with them to learn why writing is important to them, what problems they tried to solve with copywork and what was their approach to it.
2. Build a landing page I will build a simple website that explains what copywork is and what problems it solves. I plan to put a short demo widget that I used to do copywork myself, so people can try it out right away. And finally, I'll drop an email field with a Sign Up button to capture people's interest. I will contact those who signed up to better understand who they are and what problems they have.
3. Drive traffic and collect feedback I plan to reach out to writing and startup communities on Reddit to showcase my idea and get feedback on it. I will also allocate a small Google Ads budget to drive traffic to the landing page to probe people's interest in copywork.
This should give me enough information to understand if there is a market for an online copywork platform and whether I should invest in building an MVP.