When aspiring musicians first learn to play their instruments, they rarely start composing their own songs immediately. Most start by learning to play the songs of others. This allows them to focus on skills like intonation, dynamics, and tempo. The skill of composition can wait until they have developed good playing technique.
By contrast, aspiring writers almost always create their own content right from the start. Have you ever heard a conversation like this?
“I’m working on a novel.”
“Cool, what’s it about?”
“It’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”
“Oh, you mean like a fanfic?”
“No, I’m telling the story of Harry’s first year at Hogwarts.”
“But you’re not putting a spin on it or anything?”
“Nope, it’s the same as the story told in the original.”
“Word for word?”
“No, but arc for arc. Rowling’s story, my words.”
“Huh. Sort of like a cover.”
I wish writing covers were considered totally normal. I’m not talking about adaptations, like Joyce’s Ulysses (an adaptation of The Odyssey, set in 20th century Dublin), although I would love to see more of those too. By “covers”, I mean high-fidelity recreations of other people’s written works—comprehensive paraphrases.
Writing is hard. When you’re learning to write, you have to worry about coherence, organization, and word choice. That’s a lot to keep track of. Writing covers is a great way to refine these skills without needing to worry about originality. If writing covers were normal, we could all practice more and improve faster.
There would also be better, and more niche, versions of many written works. Imagine: Jane Eyre, covered by J.K. Rowling. On the Origin of Species, covered by Richard Dawkins. Twilight, covered by Margaret Atwood. Covers like these do exist, but too few. A few months ago I tweeted about this idea, and Kevin Simler boosted it to his 16,000 followers, asking for examples1. Here are some good ones:
- Hunter S. Thompson covered parts of The Great Gatsby. According to Louis Menand’s obituary of Thompson in The New Yorker, Thompson “used to type out pages from The Great Gatsby, just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way”.
- Benjamin Franklin covered articles in the Spectator. He says in his autobiography, “I took some of the papers, and making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand.”
- Visakan Veerasamy covered George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language”. He says in an introductory comment, “The following is my attempt to update George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language (1946) for modern reading. I’ve tried to follow his own principles to make his words sharper and clearer where I can.”
Look, I get it: we want to be recognized for our own ideas. And when the original source material is just a hyperlink away, why go to the trouble of paraphrasing it? One reason is that it challenges you to internalize the original author’s way of thinking. It is the deepest possible way to read a text. Another reason is that if you choose texts that are hard to paraphrase, you will stretch yourself to reproduce material that is beyond your current ability to create from scratch. This will expand the range of what you can create from scratch. Lastly, covers are good for readers, too: they provide new vantage points on the underlying ideas. Reading multiple versions of a text is like seeing its underlying ideas with binocular vision.
Covers exist in other domains too: scientists reproduce other scientists’ experiments; chefs reproduce other chefs’ recipes; painters reproduce other painters’ paintings. If you’re a writer, why not try your hand at reproducing another writer’s work? I’ve been doing this for the past few months. Here are a few examples:
- Summary of Deep Laziness, by Sarah Perry
- Summary of Solved Conversations, by Aaron Z. Lewis
- Summary of Research as a Stochastic Decision Process, by Jacob Steinhardt
It’s been great exercise for my writing muscles, and I now have enough “original”2 ideas to last me several blog posts. Even if those ideas run dry, I don’t have to worry about writer’s block. If my own ideas aren’t flowing, I can just cover someone else’s.
1. There is another whole category of examples that exist almost by luck: translations. If it weren’t for the fact that many of the greatest works of literature were composed in languages other than our own, we might not get to enjoy them as much as we do. Nobody would be iterating on the language. A few notable examples:
- Beowulf, translated by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien.
- The Tao Te Ching, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, the renowned science fiction writer.
- The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu. It is potentially even better in English than in Liu Cixin’s original Chinese.
- The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson. Says Tyler Cowen, “It is a joy to read, the best of the five translations I know, and it has received strong reviews from scholars for its accuracy and fidelity.”
2. As Veerasamy pointed out to me when I asked him about his cover of Orwell, even original creations are really just “assemblages of micro-covers” anyway. See Everything is a Remix.