KWE Publishing Newsletter - 08/10/23
You might have heard the phrase "good artists copy; great artists steal" before. This quote is often attributed to Pablo Picasso, and while the quote certainly isn't new, artists of all types have debated its meaning.
Most of us grew up hearing that stealing was bad, and as writers, we know that plagiarism is unethical. You've probably had a teacher or editor emphasize the importance of citing your sources to you, too.
So, what's the deal with suggesting we steal from other writers?
Stealing and copying are two different things.
People often focus on the latter part of this quote, but we should also take a look at the first part. As Picasso notes, good artists copy one another.
Copying means you're creating something identical, or almost identical, to the original. Maybe you make a few minor tweaks, or maybe you're changing some non-essential details here and there, but you're not making the story your own. Typically, you copy something from one source, not multiple sources.
A quick caveat here because I think it's important: most new writers at the start of their writing journey tend to (often unintentionally) copy other writers' work. They write what they know, and that often means what they write is heavily influenced by other writers, sometimes to the point of copying. I don't think there's anything wrong with copying one writer you love as long as you're just practicing and not claiming that your copy is an original piece of work. Copying can help you grow as a new writer!
But in this case, stealing someone's writing doesn't mean copying it—it means acknowledging what you see and making something your own as a result.
Stealing requires careful observation.
If you want to copy something, it doesn't require too much work. You're not creating something new, just making small adjustments. Sometimes, you copy and paste, and that's about it. But if you want to steal something, that means you have to pay attention. Why? Let me show you.
Let's say you like the following piece of writing: "She sat down and her stomach lurched. Narrowing her eyes, she glanced around. Where is–
A cold hand wrapping around her shoulder made her jump, the thought lost as she turned to look back."
If you want to steal from this piece, or any piece, of writing, you have to figure out what it is you like. Do you like the suspenseful mood it creates? Do you like that it's written in the third-person perspective? If you can pick apart writing from authors you enjoy and isolate elements that you enjoy, you've completed step one of stealing.
And that leads to the next step of stealing...
You steal methods, not words.
As we said earlier, if you're copying something, you're slightly modifying the same thing that someone else already created.
So if you loved the piece of writing we mentioned in our last point and want to steal something from it, you're not going to use the same words. Instead, you steal the methods or structures other writers use. In this case, you might steal the use of internal dialogue being interrupted by action to create a scene that flows well while making readers feel a bit on edge.
But you're going to steal this technique, you should use it in a story that is entirely your own. You might steal this method from one writer, and then steal another method or trick from another writer.
Over time, you'll develop your own style that's a mix of techniques and tricks that you've loved. You're inspired by other artists, and you're taking that inspiration and creating something unique.
Ultimately, we're all doing our best to grow our skills as writers, and often, that means stealing. It takes time to steal bits and pieces of things from other writers, and it requires you to read and write a lot on your own, too!
What do you think about "stealing" from other writers? Let us know your thoughts, we appreciate hearing from you!