Steal This Copy: Finding Inspiration in the Work of Other Writers

Copywriting Thief

I had the pleasure of attending An Event Apart in Chicago a few weeks ago, for work. AEA is organized by the wonderful people at A List Apart which, if you make or manage websites, should be an essential on your list. It was a great experience, and I couldn’t be happier with how well the trip went. Chicago is an amazing city, and the speakers were all excellent and worthy of their places as industry leaders.

One speaker stood out to me as particularly worthwhile. Jim Coudal’s closing speech was not only hysterical, but also poignant. There’s one piece in particular I’d like to deal with:

Rip off designs. You have to be your own professor. When you remake something, you are in a very real way talking to the person who made it. All of a sudden you have another skill…We (at Coudal Partners) value taste above all else. The ability to look at two things and know which one is better is the most important thing.

Jim was talking about design here, but I believe it can be easily related to copy. Keep in mind that design and copy are, in many ways, inexorably connected to one another.

Let me attempt to flesh out this idea a bit more, because I can foresee some backlash in the form of comments if I left it at this point. I don’t think Jim’s suggesting you publish work that isn’t your own. I think what he’s suggesting you do is use the work of others to improve your own work. And this can be helpful with writing just as much as it helps with design.

When it comes to design, I’ll often scour over a few different sources to find colors I like. Sometimes I’ll find those colors in other design work, maybe in CSS galleries, or (as Dan Cederholm suggested at AEA) even in a picture of the outdoors. Color palettes, designers will tell you, can make or break a layout. You just can’t create beautiful things without the right colors.

In the same way, you can’t write well without transitions. Honestly, the transition is the killer component of any literature. I’m reminded of television’s Lost, the creative masterpiece of J.J. Abrams, and how well it tidies up the transitions between flashbacks and the present day. Each one is unique and connects the two stories perfectly, all the while maintaining consistency by using the same whooshing for each in and out.

Did you ever think you could learn to write well by watching television? Call your mom and tell her, right now.

Start by compiling a list of great writing talent that you can refer back to when you are creatively dry. CopyBlogger should be way up on the list, plus great advertisements, and apparently even great network television. I would also encourage you to try out some fiction writers, as different styles can really help diversify your writing. One of my favorites, and a very creative guy, is Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and Choke.

Try out Jim’s advice and steal some copy (techniques). Find what works for you and use the hell out of it.

WordPress users, get more great stuff from Ryan Imel over at Theme Playground.

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Reader Comments (21)

  1. says

    Excellent advice Ryan. Some of the best artists I know began at a young age tracing the work of those they admired.

    Inspiration can be found everywhere. The key is being aware of it, knowing where to look, and how to adapt it to make it your own.

  2. says

    It’s through imitating others that we learn. If we imitate enough, we start to meld the best of what we like about other’s writing into our own. This is slippery slope to having your own style!

  3. says

    Consider this post stolen! (At the very least, linked to)

    But seriously, I find that whenever I’m a little creatively dry, or I can’t figure out how to word something, if I just flip open one of my favorite books I’ll be able to draw some inspiration and advice. Great article, Ryan.

  4. says


    Very well written post. I was just thinking about how well you were transitioning from one point to the next when you slipped right into into talking about the transitions themselves.

    I agree completely that keeping the flow from one point to the next is a crucial aspect of excellent writing. I think it is also critical for the writer to be properly inspired before these transitions will flow naturally. And that’s where looking to other excellent work comes in.

    Although I’m sure many will point out how dangerous it can be to take ideas from other people, assimilating and reapplying what is already around is one of the best ways to come up with something brilliant and new.

    Thanks for the great post,

    – Mason Hipp

  5. says

    I’m sure many will point out how dangerous it can be to take ideas from other people…

    Everyone takes ideas from other people, either directly or indirectly, in whole or in part.

    It’s how we remix those ideas that makes us unique. :)

  6. says

    Great post, and very well written. Taking inspiration from other sources is one of the best ways to get new ideas, and write great copy.

    Hell, Shakespeare “stole” most of his ideas from older works, as did Chaucer. If the great writers of the past can “steal” ideas and be heralded as geniuses, I think it can work for the rest of us, too.

    And…just to be nit-picky, Chuck Palahniuk is not a fictional writer. He is a fiction writer. Reading the work of fiction writers is a good tip. The work of fictional writers, on the other hand, is generally non-existent.

  7. says

    I keep various files of work that I turn to periodically for inspiration. Learned this years ago from a designer I worked for. She called it a “tickler file”. Whatever you call it, it works when you’re stuck.

    I also keep lists of various types of copy I like. Has saved my butt more than once when I was on deadline!

  8. says

    As a fiction (some say “fictional”) writer myself, I freely steal ideas from my favorite authors. Some stuff gets ripped off so many times that it becomes common place. Who hasn’t heard of “tachyon particles”? Every TV SciFi show “detects” them when someone else is lurking around. Ray guns are passe, now it’s needle guns.

    So, as one comic put it, “Plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize. But always please to be calling it ‘research’.”

  9. says

    The work of fictional writers, on the other hand, is generally non-existent.

    That’s exactly right. The mystery is how that escaped the usually careful eye of the editor. He must be slacking. :)

  10. Thomas Christopher Sullivan says

    “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” – T. S. Eliot

    I’ve always liked that advice. Not that I “steal” as in plagiarize, but rather try to draw inspiration from other work. Sometimes it’s general (a concept or structure), sometimes very specific (a sentence I like).

  11. says

    Great artists start off by mimicking the work of others; then from there begin to develop their own style. It should be the same with writing. Besides, some ideas are so commonplace that it’s nigh impossible not to borrow them.

  12. says

    We should be learning from everything around us, but especially from the media that we are exposed to. I remember my mom boasting when I was very little about me being such a good reader that I even read the back of cereal boxes (not top literature, for sure). Guess what? I still read cereal boxes, and everything else that crosses my path.

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