copywork: a secret hiding in plain sight
overlooked by everyone but the pros
Let’s talk about “copywork” — the process of copying or imitating as a form of study.
How does it work?
Collect instances of a technique or type of work
Methodically reproduce each one as closely as you can
Study the similarities and differences between each
What does it look like in practice? Oh boy, let me tell you a story…
From Aspiring Lawyer to UI Designer
Through some Internet serendipity, I met Ye Shin a couple years ago. He’s the one who first got me hooked on copywork.
During his senior year of college, Ye had plans to go to law school. But during his last semester, he took a design course that changed everything. He fell in love.
So like a normal human being, the summer after graduation, he shut himself in at his childhood home and grinded out 80-hour weeks for 3 months to teach himself UI design.
“I took screenshots of apps I really liked and recreated them. This helped me discover design patterns for myself. What are the rules of typography? How do grid systems work in the real world?”
Putting in the work in this manner led him to find some ways he could improve the Venmo app. He mocked up his suggestion and wrote about it in his portfolio, which ultimately led to an internship and then full-time job offer at Meetup.
Here’s another example.
YouTube and Judo Practice
Through another act of The Internet Being Awesome, I met Cedric Chin recently. He’s got an incredible blog that I have shared with y’all several times.
Cedric is a lifelong Judo practitioner. But because he lives in Southeast Asia, he does not have access to the best coaches or sources of instruction.
So like a normal human being, in his spare time he compiles YouTube videos from competitions, takes note of timestamps of various techniques, and then studies them. During his next sparring session, he imitates the technique, observes what happens, and takes notes on his bus ride home.
And even this is not enough for him. When I spoke with him, he told me:
“If I were to get serious, I would find every instance of a particular person doing a particular throw.
Every Judo Grand Prix is streamed on YouTube for free. So if I had time, I’d watch all these instances.
There are also compilation videos of particular techniques. I’d watch a particular player repeatedly. Play, pause, reverse, frame by frame.”
Why Does Copywork Work So Well?
“I have now finished all sixty sheets. I worked almost a whole fortnight, from early morning until night.”
Vincent Van Gogh, after finishing copywork of the famous Bargue plates
Copywork is the great equalizer for some, a massive edge for others. But most people don’t want to do it.
Why? It’s fucking uncomfortable. The people I’ve interviewed said it feels like they’re getting forcibly dragged way above their current level. They don’t know what to do or how to do it. Every small step seems to take forever to figure out.
But if you do this enough times, things click; techniques begin to move into your bones. You start noticing things you never thought to look for.
Eventually, you can simply feel good code, good design, or a good melody or progression. That discomfort becomes productive discomfort:
“The actual blocker to action is the visceral, emotional discomfort with not-knowing what to do and how to do it.
[T]he more often I manage to unstick myself and act, despite being uncomfortable with not-knowing how the action will turn out, the easier it is to unstick myself in the future.
Vaughn Tan, Uncertainty Mindset
Copywork and the mindset shift it induces have become recurring themes in my interviews. Much to learn and more to unpack on this in a later email.
Thanks for reading! Have a great weekend, everyone.