Why You SHOULD Steal From Other Authors

It's Monday evening and I'm still alive ... SUCCESS!!! *high fives all around*

Now before anyone blows a gasket over the title of this post, I'll clarify and say that I'm not talking about plagiarism. If you didn't write it, you shouldn't claim it. What I AM talking about is the idea of using the style, techniques, and methods of successful/favorite authors to enhance your own work. This isn't a new idea ...

"Art begins in imitation and ends in innovation." ~ Mason Cooley

One key way that humans (and many other animals/mammals) learn is through imitation. Anyone who has seen children play 'house' or 'school' (or done so themselves) has witnessed it first hand. A psychologist by the name of Albert Bandura developed the Social Learning Theory based upon studies he performed where children were observed interacting with each other. He believed that modeling, which had once been decried as one of the most primitive forms of learning, was in fact used to "learn" many of the higher order social and emotional aspects of human behavior. Things like love, empathy and--more controversially--violent behavior/tendencies.

He was a smart dude.

"By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest." ~ Confucius

Artists are conduits. We take things in, amplify them in some way, and then spit them back out in our own fashion. Sounds, sights, experiences, emotions, conversations, and any other little thing that gets near us form the raw materials that are used to create.

So if it's as easy as that, why aren't we all bestsellers? If I go through the same process as Stephen King, why is he able to write me under the table? I think it probably comes down to awareness. Observation and imitation are different things. Learning really only occurs when the two are put together.

"Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term Art, I should call it 'the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.' The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of 'Artist.'" ~ Edgar Allan Poe

I think Confucius had it right; if we are going to truly learn from the greats, we have to first understand why they're great in the first place (reflection). How? By reading, of course. Read all of your favorites, read a few of the ones you don't like, and then read everything in between. Pay close attention, and learn to notice all of those literary/writing buzz-terms we've been hearing so much about: voice, dialogue, pacing, plot, setting, etc. How did the author employ them? Why?

After you've gleaned all that you can, then move to imitation. Can you write a paragraph or sentence that fans of the author wouldn't be able to set apart? It's harder than it sounds, but if you truly want to understand why a certain author/writing style works, it's a step that must be taken.

"Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another." ~ Voltaire       

"It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation." ~ Herman Melville

While I cannot--and should not--rely solely on imitation, I tend to believe that the key to unlocking my writing potential may very well be held in the collective hands of others. In the end I may utilize but a fraction of what I derive from others in my own writing, but the process of studying their work will surely lead to a strengthening of my own prose.

What about you? Do you have authors you emulate or study? If you could steal a skill from any author what/who would it be? As for me, I'd love to have JK Rowling's plotting abilities! I'll leave you with one final quote.

“Men nearly always follow the tracks made by others and proceed in their affairs by imitation, even though they cannot entirely keep to the tracks of others or emulate the prowess of their models. So a prudent man should always follow in the footsteps of great men and imitate those who have been outstanding. If his own prowess fails to compare with theirs, at least it has an air of greatness about it. He should behave like those archers who, if they are skilful, when the target seems too distant, know the capabilities of their bow and aim a good deal higher than their objective, not in order to shoot so high but so that by aiming high they can reach the target.”  ~ Machiavelli 



  1. I couldn't agreee more. Hey EJ! :)

    I've been thinking of a similar post... should be coming up soon, entitled, Originality. Look out for it.

    I loved the quotes. It's so true. We all "borrow" a little, and then make it our own. As they say, "there's nothing new under the sun." We just have to give it our personal touches.

  2. I'd say I really wished I had the ability to create poetry as prose like Francesca Lia Block. I put her work in a category of its own.

  3. Honestly I wish I could write funny. I'm not good at humor, I have a very lacking sense of it, and am a very literal thinker. people tell jokes and I'm curious why it happened. I hear a comedian say some spin offs and I think they are dumb things to laugh at, yet a guy with puppets can entertain me for hours (Jeff Dunham, the only comedian of any kind I enjoy)Unfortunately I don't read much comedy books either, because honestly I don't find them funny. What I laugh at and what others laugh at are very very very different. But I'm trying my hand anyway- to see what I can do with it. learning is about doing.

  4. I learnt to write from reading. No doubt about it :) and I must be doing something right if my first review on Amazon is anything to go by. Read, read and read then write!

    The Arrival, on Amazon NOW!

  5. Hey EJ, I followed you here from Amanda Hocking's post on her top ten albums. Just letting you know you can fly the Silverchair fanboy flag for longer than a minute coz they rock ;)
    And also this was a great post. Loved the quotes. I totally use other books to help my own writing. Like using 'flashbacks' for example. I love how a good author can take you to a different time and place within the narrative arc and as a reader you're not even really conscious of them doing it. It's good to read back through and study and learn how authors use certain techniques.

  6. Good advice, now if I could just find more time to read! I see stuff I'd like to be able to do in lots of books, but the thing that immediately comes to mind is Christine Fletcher's beautiful lyrical language. I'd love to write like that.

  7. Love this post. I think that originality is so hard to come by because we read, watch, learn, imitate so much from others that it is all too easy to do it and call your own.

    I just start writing and let my mind take me where ever it wants to go and go from there. I try not to read too many post of how who does what how too often...yah that made sense. lol But, I just try to be me.

  8. Firstly, Let me say I loved that 'artists are conduits' bit. Stolen for my facebook. With credit, of course.

    Secondly, I totally agree. I just read As I Stay by Gayle Forman, and she tells the story in alternating present and flashbacks. And after reading it I realised my first MS, buried for almost 2 years, would probably work really well in that style.

    There isn't much that hasn't been done before.


  9. Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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