The Art of Copying

It’s not whether to copy, it’s whom to copy

According to Deborah Levy, unwillingness to copy is a form of selfcentred-ness. This prevents you from, say, learning foreign languages and customs when you’re abroad. The Duolingo app, on the other hand, teaches you a new language by practically forcing you to mimic, like a parrot.

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Gary Halbert was a master of direct marketing, which it’s useful to think of as an obsolescent form of marketing belonging to the industrial era. But he was also a thoughtful person, a good writer, and a father who wrote an advice book for his son called, The Boron Letters. (Sounds like a Jack Vance novel).

I didn’t read the whole thing but used my Kindle app’s search function to go straight to the part about copying, to research a longer article on the subject.

Anyway, in The Boron Letters, Gary advises his son to learn business (not just advertising but business) by copying famous advertisements like this one by hand. Like 1000s of others have done over the eons, hand-copying the works of writers who came before them – “copywork”.

Well, it’s the same with digital products.

For example, say you are selling a book in 2021. (If so, you’re selling an ebook. The only difference is length and how you attempt to position it). The book’s front cover is a web page, not a piece of paper or cardboard or whatever. It’s something on a screen. Or many screens ideally.

Screen-as-book-cover has its advantages. For example, see how James Clear lets you download the first chapter of Atomic Habits before buying it – and gain him an email subscriber? It’s like Amazon but without the seizure-inducing UI. The point is – cardboard covers can’t do that.

If you’re making books or other digital content such as newsletter articles, ebooks, or whitepapers, consider copying James Clear approach. Merlin Sheldrake does this perhaps more artfully. But the “cover” of James Clear’s book works better. 

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Gary Halbert also said that you will start to sound like whoever you are copying by hand. Of course. That’s not the punchline. If you blatantly copy Clear’s homepage, you will sound and feel like him, as though you were wearing a James Clear bodysuit and voice modulator. 

But as Gary Halbert points out, your peculiarities will eventually emerge and set you apart from whoever your copying. Because it’s creepy to fake being someone else for long. And you just have an urge to erase what doesn’t feel right.

If you don’t copy James Clear (or anyone else) as you make things, you will continue to sound like some undifferentiated mix of all of the other infinite content shoved down your brain every day. Your voice can emerge from that swamp, but more slowly, without the accelerant that the art of copying gives you.

Publishing is one of the pillars of independent consulting and entrepreneurship. Maybe not high-frequency publishing, maybe not even writing – but some kind of publishing. So the next question is who do you want to copy and why?