Why Do Great Writers Steal?

The full quote is Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal. T.S.Eliot

There is also a version for visual artists, attributed to Picasso (or Banksy!)

I was asked on a teleconference the other day, “What do I do if I am stuck in writing my book?” and I referred to this quote. I am also making my way to the mid-point of NaNoWriMo and the well is getting a bit dry for my first fiction novel. So what does it actually mean?

  • Steal ideas. Read other people’s works, or look at other people’s art work. If you like an idea, ruminate on it, muddle it around in your brain and see where it ends up. Write the same idea in your own words and you can bet it will be a different story or a new angle on it. Steal other people’s experiences and write about them for plot. Steal their words as they speak to help your dialogue. How many books about the end of the world are there? How many unrequited love stories? How many quest adventures?
  • Steal words. Stephen King advises writers to read, and presumably most of us love doing just that! I am constantly reading, on the iPhone and physical book and now on the Kindle (I carry all with me!). If you are reading something and find a new word, or a description or phrase, or a poetry line, then write it down. Maybe you can re-use the word in a different context, or it helps you describe something in a better way.
  • Steal chunks of work and remix it. There is a lot of work released under Creative Commons licensing now, which means you can legitimately ‘steal’ it and remix it and draw inspiration from it. This is a great source of ideas and content. Remember to check the licensing as to what you can do with the work though. [This blog content is CC licensed as below right].
  • Don’t steal chunks of copyrighted work. This is plagiarism! Of course, T.S. Eliot did not mean copy other people’s work and pass it off as your own. Don’t copy down chunks of Wikipedia and claim them as your words.

“If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants” Isaac Newton

Our brains are a mass of connections and if you add something new into the mix, you will spark new connections. An old idea can be recycled into a new one, with a new twist. Shakespeare took his ideas from so many sources and wouldn’t we all love to write tales like his?

Idea for this post stolen from Jeremiah Abrams at his writer’s weekend. Also discussed in the sci-fi/fantasy podcast with Pip Ballantine, J Daniel Sawyer and Chris Lester available here.

Useful related posts:

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons ahisgett

Be Sociable, Share!


  1. says

    I would say that it’s almost impossible NOT to steal, whether it be subconsciously or consciously. My reading most definitely shapes the stories I want to tell and how I tell them. Of course, it is always nice to be reminded that we have permission to do so!

  2. Chris Bates says

    This is a great topic for a post, Joanna.

    Fact is, writers steal all the time because we are moved by story. There’s no better way to replicate the emotion gifted to us from our favourite writers than to pilfer their genius!

    All writers steal scenes, set-ups, beat progressions and, of course, we steal style. We just don’t like to admit it. And, hell, maybe it just happens subconsciously anyway.

    What do I steal?

    Structure. Cadence. Tone. Characterisation, etc.

    But… recognising what not to steal is hugely important. Knowing crap exposition, dialogue etc is a true sign of growth.

    I guess that is all part of the joy of writing … well, when it all works! :)

    If only I could steal me some discipline and motivation!

    PS: Hope your enjoying the weather in BrizVegas? As of tomorrow we have three days of rain coming!!

  3. Chris Bates says

    ^^^ Ha!! I’ve only just noticed the date on this post!!^^^

    Just another confirmation that I’m out of touch with anything other than Formula 1…!!

  4. Nordlys says

    I always did that, since I was 5.
    At the start I just copied, then I learned to edit those ideas. Now nobody can find where original idea come from.

  5. says

    Thanks for this article! I stumbled across it and really enjoyed reading it. I completely agree with what you’re saying, and like Nordlys, the original ideas always seem to become buried deep – sometimes even I can’t remember what sparked my stories. Reading this, I realise I’m not the only one who steals ideas and changes them!

    Because the article was relevant as well as interesting, I’ve linked it under “Further reading” on my post (below). I hope you don’t mind.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *