“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Steve Jobs, 1996
So what do I mean?
Obviously you cannot truly steal someone’s creative work; beyond being unethical it is also highly illegal. People are getting sued for millions of dollars for creative infringement (and as a young freelancer/ writer, you can ill afford that kind of bill). But there are aspects of another person’s writing that you can borrow for your own – the trick is finding the parts that are worth utilizing.
My suggestion: Read. I know it sounds so simple and even a little cliched, but it’s true. To become a great writer, you must read great writers… and I do not use the term must in a light sense. if you don’t explore what makes other writing great, you will never be able to figure out a way to make your copy shine.
What kind of writing should you read? Everything. Any book someone hands you. Every well-written article. Every effective manual.
I know this is a big order to fill, but trust me, your writing will not suffer; it will only get better.
Case and point – when I started freelancing, I was hired by a company to write copy for a variety of different how-to videos to go along with a new cell phone launch. It was not an easy task, especially since my background was in print – not video – and in either scholarly or journalistic writing – not purely instructional. It really felt like a tall order to fill. I was new, inexperienced and in a position that could make or break my freelancing opportunities with this company. In short, I was terrified.
So what did I do?
I went home with the style guide for the company. I watched all of the previous how-to videos for this company. I watched the how-to videos for other companies that had received high ratings on Youtube to figure out what made them effective. I watched a few crappy ones to see where they fell short… and then I wrote. There is no question that these pieces were not high literature, but it was writing. By stealing the best from the best I was able to write effective copy and garner repeat business.
So back to the point – steal style, concepts and rhetorical devices. Read great literature. Read bad literature. Read fiction, non-fiction, magazines, fantasy, science, pre-teen novels… anything you can get your hands on. It will make a difference.
One thing I also suggest is to read writing that you dislike as well. Having completed a degree in English Literature I had multiple opportunities to read authors and books that I truly despised (don’t shoot me, but much of that disliked literature was Charles Dickens). I learned what I didn’t like about that literature (again, my biggest teacher was Dickens… and it’s a long, long list) but also that even these writings that I loathed so much still had many positive aspects. For example, my biggest issue with Dickens was how he brought about change in his books – he usually relied on some form of “miracle,” be that a mysterious benefactor or a ghost (or three); I hated his narrative on the working class and his general hopelessness for that group of people barring some spectacular change of circumstance… BUT I did admire his attention to detail and his truly bizarre sense of humour in the naming of his characters.
There is always something to be learned from writers – good or bad, enjoyed or despised; it’s utilizing the information presented and using it in your own work… without getting sued, of course.