Here’s an interesting exercise from Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, by Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors. It’s almost too simple: copying passages, word for word, from admired authors. It sounds brainless, but after having done a couple, I can tell you that it isn’t. When I copy a passage, I’m forced to read it slowly, word by word. And when I do that, I notice things that I didn’t notice when reading the passage full speed.
Take, for instance, this passage by John Minor Wisdom that I posted three days ago. When I first read it, it struck me as exceptionally well written (at least for legal writing), and I liked Judge Wisdom’s use of an extended metaphor. Yesterday I decided to put it through the copying exercise, and I noticed things that I didn’t notice on first reading. For instance, the first three sentences are in passive voice; the last two are in active voice. Judge Wisdom deliberately used passive voice in the first three sentences because he wanted to focus attention on the knot, an inanimate object and the recipient of the action in the sentences. In the last two sentences, the focus shifts to the judges: what the trial judge did, and what the appellate judges are going to do. In describing the actions of actors, Judge Wisdom writes in the active voice. I didn’t notice Judge Wisdom’s careful use of voice on the first reading; it was only when I wrote the passage out in longhand that I noticed it.
If you’re interested in giving this exercise a try, follow these tips from Corbett and Connors:
- Spend no more than 15 to 20 minutes copying at any one time. If you go over 15 or 20 minutes, your attention will wander.
- Write the passage with a pencil or pen, not with a keyboard. Typing is too fast and too mechanical. Writing by hand forces you to slow down.
- Don’t spend too much time on one author. Otherwise you may find yourself aping that author’s style instead of developing your own.
- Read the entire passage before beginning to write, so that you have a sense of the whole before turning your attention to the word-by-word detail. Corbett and Connors recommend reading each sentence before copying it, and reading the entire transcription after you’ve finished.
- Write slowly and accurately, in the best penmanship you can manage. Again, the idea is to force yourself to slow down.
- Practice this exercise over an extended time. Transcribing one passage a day for a month will be more beneficial than transcribing several passages a day for a week.
All you need for this exercise, apart from a pen or pencil, is a decent notebook. If you’re trendy and have money to burn, you may opt for a Moleskine notebook. Me, I find that the good old-fashioned composition pad works nicely.