The Power of Copying a Text

The power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out.
Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it,
whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text,
that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it:
because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of day-dreaming,
whereas the copier submits it to command.

Walter Benjamin

Want to learn from your reading? Start copying.

Copying a text is one way to absorb great ideas and improve writing skills.

Just as countless scholars and thinkers have done through the centuries, use a simple commonplace book to capture ideas, thoughts, and phrases from the books you read. Commonplacing is a time-tested method for absorbing concepts and ideas. Famous people such as Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, and John Milton diligently copied in order to learn or to gather ideas as food for thought. You can browse through some of these commonplace books at the websites of the British Library (Renaissance Commonplace Books exhibit) and the Library of Congress (Thomas Jefferson’s books are particularly interesting).

Long before I knew it was a standard, well-known practice, I was keeping quotes in little notebooks. As a teen, I gleaned quotes from the Reader’s Digest, scripture, my well-loved copy of 101 Famous Poems, favorite novels, and more. One quote that I transferred from book to book for many years was Ardis Whitman’s succinct admonition that “Freedom is not in doing what you want to do, but in becoming what you want to be.” It served as a reminder to me that the way I chose to spend time had the power to shape my life.

Copying as part of language arts

Charlotte Mason recommended copywork as part of the language arts curriculum, and I second that suggestion. Copying a text is a powerful way, not only to practice writing mechanics, but also to absorb the cadence of an author’s prose, the fluidity of each sentence, and most of all, the deep meaning of the passage. If you want your students to memorize anything, the first place to begin is by having them copy it.

I learned the power of copying when I did calligraphy for hire. Writing out a text gave me time to reflect on meaning, prose style, and more. Poetry and verses that I copied have remained with me, even decades later. Copying is a relatively simple activity that can make your student a better writer. I hope you’ll try it!

6 Responses

  1. Kimmie says:

    I love copywork …hoping I will be able to give it to our new daughter …right now we are learning copywork from the Bible. Hoping it will help her gain English without too much stress involved. I am sure we will do a lot of this over the next few months.

    thanks for the encouragment Janice!

    Kimmie
    mama to 8
    one homemade and 7 adopted

  2. Carol Flett says:

    copywork must be good for some judging by what you say. I guess it depends on your learning style. For me it was torture and I didn’t absorb a thing. I guess writing in itself was such hard work for me, (I think disgraphia or whatever, no one knew at the time)that all my concentration was on spelling the individual words. I did OK with taking short form notes from what I read.

    • That’s interesting, Carol. Copywork is usually the easiest thing for people who have writing difficulty, because there’s no need to try and remember any spelling, grammar, or punctuation since it’s all there in the model. If you ever want to try it again, you might find it easier to have someone write out the text for you, skipping lines. That way, you’re not having to look back and forth for any distance, as each letter or punctuation mark is written under the model. Sometimes just eliminating the physical distance between the model and the copy can help a child who is struggling.

      Kimmie, copywork is usually wonderful for getting the feel of a new language. I practiced it myself when I was learning French.

  3. Carol Flett says:

    I guess the letters just got mixed up from the page to where I was copying to. Even copying into the computer goes straight from the page to my fingers without registering much in my brain.

    When I a child hates copy work, as in most of my kids and grandkids, I generally feel for them, and look for other ways, such as discussions, to help them remember.

    • If that’s the way it works for you, you’re probably very wise to look for alternates. I believe that everyone has learning methods that work best, and it’s nice when you can find them. Moms and grandmoms have to be flexible, and it doesn’t hurt to make it fun as well.

      You have a very nice grandparenting website. I enjoyed browsing! Thanks for stopping to by to share your experience.

  1. July 7, 2011

    […] Here’s a post on Copywork for Teens, and a post on The Power of Copying a Text. […]

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