The Writing Exercise that will Save Your Career (Or Build It)

I’m not a big believer in writing exercises. Total heathen, actually. Sure, they help you sharpen skills and generate content, but usually they’re throwaway gimmicks that work for some and waste time for many.

Except for this one. It’s called “Covering.”

My writer-buddy Billy Hallal turned me onto Covering years ago while he was getting his MFA at Florida State. His professor Elizabeth Stuckey-French introduced his fiction class to it and it blew them away.

 Most recently I rejuvenated my writing by covering Ol' Stevie.
Most recently I rejuvenated my writing by covering Ol’ Stevie.

Covering is simple. Pick one of your favorite books and open to any page. Read half of the page. Then re-read it until you almost have it memorized. Now grab a sheet of paper and write it back from memory.

If you transcribe it word-for-word, great. If not, fill in what you forgot with your own material. Or you might even deliberately rewrite it in your own style, just like a band putting their own twist on a classic song.

And that’s it. Simple exercise, but committing paragraphs to memory will force you to pay closer attention to word choice and sentence structure. Just recently I started reading Stephen King’s Under the Dome. Later on, I went back to the opening page and tried covering them. Wow, was I amazed at the amount of detail I overlooked during my casual readthrough. Covering just a few paragraphs showed me how to effectively introduce a rural New England setting along with an early dash of plot tension. 

Now this wasn’t a first for me. I’ve done this exercise for years, starting back in 2014. Salem’s Lot, I Am Legend, and Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy were among the books that I copied down and learned from.

Still not sold on it? Check out this interview with Joe Hill, the author of Horns and NOS4A2. After becoming a bestselling author, Hill found himself in a writing rut. What got him out of it was the Covering exercise:

 Covering: It saved Joe Hill's career and it can save yours.
Covering: It saved Joe Hill’s career and it can save yours.

“I would start my day by copying out two pages of [Elmore Leonard’s] The Big Bounce. I’d copy sentence after sentence, trying to get the rhythms back. How does good writing sound? What does good dialogue sound like, how does a story move? I would do about two pages of it and the last couple of sentences would be my own. I was writing The Big Bounce but I was writing my version of The Big Bounce. Then I would change documents and start writing Horns.”

Horns helped Joe Hill climb to the upper tier of contemporary horror writers and was later made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe. By Covering another book, Hill rediscovered his own writing voice and hammered out his second bestseller. 

So whether you’re trying to save your career or build it, start covering your favorite authors. Chances are, they have shitloads to teach you.

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