A good writer is a good thief

I don’t know anyone who considers themself a writer and does not like to read. As writers, we learn the power of words by first feeling their effects on us at the hand of another. But reading for pleasure is very different than reading with the critical eye of a writer. We are always moved by powerful stories, inspired by complex characters, and who doesn’t swoon over a syntactically rich sentence?

When I read as a writer, I look for things I can steal. Not ideas to plagiarize, but interesting choices I want to test out and emulate in my own writing. As an undergrad, I had a creative writing teacher who told us to think of our favorite writers, and steal as much as we can. A good writer is a good thief.

So when I read as a writer, I keep track of things that just make me say, “Wow. I want to do that.” Sometimes it’s the way the writer has created an unusual or unique way to describe something. Other times it could be the narration technique or the structure of the text. When I find something to “steal,” I think about how I can morph it to fit my own writing in a way that will make my readers feel the same way I felt when I was inspired. Very simply, when I read as a writer, I read to learn something new I can try in my own writing.

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  • Julie Candio Sekel says:

    Nikki, This is almost exactly how I feel when reading (see my blog post). I really do think a lot of good writing stems from “stealing,” not in an academic-dishonesty-plagiarismish way, but rather in an “I like that. I want to do that too” way. I like the idea that we strive to inspire our readers in the same way we felt inspired, or laugh in the way other writers made us laugh, or cry in the way they made us cry (you get the point). I think this is something too many students don’t realize: that there are millions of “models” waiting for them out there, ready to be examined, repurposed, and used anew.

  • Vanessa says:

    I didn’t write about this, but I completely agree. I always feel like when I really love a piece of writing, I want to steal the writer’s “voice.”

  • Heather says:

    Nikki, I agree 100% and do this myself often. I once met someone who said she wanted to be a writer, but “doesn’t read much.” I was like — whaaaaaat? How does that even work?

  • Nicole Wittenburg says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one! There is totally a non-plagiarism way to steal–it’s about emulating and recreating moments.

    Heather- I don’t think that works. Not at all. Can you be a musician if you don’t listen to music? No. You have to know the art to do it.


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