a simple (but powerful) writing exercise: learning from the masters

Here’s a simple, but powerful writing exercise that’s helped me tremendously with my daily writing habit. Pick one of your favorite passages from one of your favorite books. Read it. And then rewrite it; try to make it better than the original.

You will fail. That’s ok. An exercise is not about the end result. It’s about the practice. It’s about giving it your best shot, and then examining what it has to teach you.

Compare both versions. What can you learn from the original? What can you learn from your version? What worked? What didn’t?

Write down your takeaway from this exercise. Be as specific as possible. Really analyze what made it work. Don’t say: “Frank Herbert’s prose is so much stronger.” Instead, pick one specific thing that’s stronger in the original than in your rewrite. It can be a tiny insight, a single sentence:

“Truth without fear surprises the Baron,” Piter said.

A more common way of saying this would have been “The Baron is surprised when someone boldly tells him the truth”, or “The Baron is surprised when the truth is spoken without fear”. But Herbert chose to make it more succinct and put the most impactful phrase in front: “Truth without fear”. I also can’t think of a simpler way of saying what this sentence expressed with so much clarity. Plus, in this simple six word sentence, there’s so much implicitly communicated: the Baron is a powerful man that’s feared by most. He’s used to people telling him what he wants to hear, or tiptoeing around difficult topics. He respects courage.

To me, in this example, the one lesson I’d pick is to ask myself when I look at my writing: Can I express this simpler?

I love this exercise, because you can do in a couple of minutes, and yet, it’ll often teach you something that’s specific to your personal writing style.

If you want to take it one step further, you can even file the passage and your rewrite away, and three months later pull up the original version again and rewrite it again. Compare your three months old version with your latest version: Have you heeded the lesson you learned last time? If yes, what else can you learn? If not, keep practicing.

Let prolific practice be your teacher.

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