Saturday, July 9, 2011

Why you should transcribe hand

When you go art museums, chances are you'll see somebody like the woman on the left copying a masterpiece. She's not expecting to make a name for herself by doing this. Sure she might sell it as a copy...who knows...but that's not the reason she invests all this time into her task. She's spending days in this museum with her paints and easel to get inside the master's mind and figure out exactly how they created the illusions that made that painting great.

She's hoping that once she gains these insights, she will have the skills necessary to eventually create beautiful art of her own. She hopes to become a master herself.

Other arts such as music or literature don't have such public exposure to artists copying the masters, as they can be done in the privacy of their own home, but it's something we shouldn't neglect to do ourselves.

We read the masters as writers and we learn stuff from them. They teach us how to tell a story and what you can do with the language. But how much can we really absorb by just reading them once, twice, even ten times? The answer is not as nearly as much is if you sit down and actually transcribe their words on paper by hand.

When you slow things down and copy down each word, each letter, and each punctuation mark, you are effectively dissecting the work. You figure out what the author is doing and you gain insight in to why. You essentially take a microscope to the work, and just like the painter, you inspect each brush stroke, each color is scrutinized, and more often than not, you end up with an ah-ha moment that leaves you a stronger writer.

While most of the masters are famous for their novels, it would be preferable to select some of their more acclaimed short stories. They are short enough where it will only take a couple hours to transcribe an entire story by hand (Yes I know this is a long time, but it's worth it) You will then see how these authors open the story, carry it through the middle, and wrap it up in the end. Novels...well those would take weeks of constant transcription and an wrist of steel to do.

Novels though can contain very good passages that would have some benefit as well, and while copying the whole thing might not be practical, doing the first and last chapter will give you insights into the two most important chapters in a novel, if writing those things are your thing.

Now I also mentioned that you should do this by hand. Why is that? Well for one is slows you down just a little bit more. It's easy on a keyboard to type fast and recklessly because it's easy to delete and use spellcheck. This will not only diminish the effect of transcription, but you will loose one of the other benefits that will really help you out...HANDWRITING. As I'm writing this post, @sirra_girl just mentioned how she can't read her own edits sometimes, just like me. Well one way to improve this aspect is to write by hand and write slowly. Again, greatly beneficial.

The last thing I want to mention is that you also want to make sure you do some transcribing of the modern masters as well. While the old guys like Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, etc. have lots to learn from, the modern masters (especially ones published in the last year or two) will help you keep your writing current. If you're not plugged into who they are, just look at award winners for instance.

Is this something you've done before? If yes, did it work for you? If no, will you be trying this?


Carrie July 9, 2011 at 8:38 PM  

I think I might do just this. Such a simple idea yet I've never done it. I take that back, I've done it with poetry and lyrics to understand and remember certain pieces, so why wouldn't this work? Splendid idea, thank you.

Michael A Tate July 10, 2011 at 6:51 PM  

I'm glad you found my little tip useful enough to try. That alone made the post worth writing! Let me know how it turns out for you.

Rachel McClellan July 14, 2011 at 4:16 PM  

Good advice! I have learned far more from reading other authors books then I have from reading books that teach you how to write.

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