How to steal properly: An exercise for writers of all types

How to steal properly: An exercise for writers of all types

Steal the things you like.

You've probably heard this piece of advice before. Most likely from the mouth of Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, who stole it (with credit) from Picasso, the famous 20th century Cubist artist.

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

I'm here to steal this piece of advice one more time, but with some actionable insights on how to do it properly.

Because stealing poorly ends up in protestation of plagiarism, or, worse, legal copyright motions that you probably can't afford. Stealing correctly, on the other hand, means you can learn from those you appreciate most, elevate your work, and still make a unique impact through your brand.

How to steal properly: An exercise for writers of all types

The first step is to find brands that you think are going incredible work for the same type of copy/content you're trying to produce. If you need to create a killer tagline or slogan, find a brand that does them well. Ctrl+c that piece of writing, stat.

Now, create a new document, create a few paragraph breaks, and paste in that text. Move your cursor back up to the top of the document and start your normal process of writing. Ideally, you can see both your work and the work you've "stolen" from a brand you respect.

The goal is to let the other copy linger in your brain and inspire you as you go about your normal copywriting/content creation process.

Don't copy it exactly.

Instead, borrow the rhythm and the voice. Try to construct your sentences, which are targeted to your ideal customers in words they immediately understand, in a similar fashion. Read the other piece aloud a dozen times, or until you know how its structure invites you to appreciate its message. Continue in the effort to achieve that same success in your writing, and then run it through your favorite checklist to make it shine.

Don't copy.

Copying is taking, wholesale, something you wish you had done. It's exactly why we have clichés Stealing is understanding the underlying structure, the seemingly unseen magic that makes good copy happen, and applying it to your work.

There's a huge difference.

Don't copy.

Preparing for this exercise should start long before you ever have to produce some essential copy.

When in a discovery meeting with a new client, I always ask: "What are some of your favorite brands? Which have copy that appeals to you most?" I clarify that their answer(s) can be from within their market or well outside. My goal is to get a better understanding of their style.

Almost all these clients don't have an answer. That's shocking to me, honestly.

Perhaps it's because I have a fascination with copywriting and branding, but my brain is always attuned to companies that are, simply put, nailing it. I've bookmarked sites, saved them on Instagram, and taken pictures with my phone. I always have a few guiding brands in mind as I'm working on various projects, whether it's for my personal "brand" or a client.

This exercise starts with the discovery phase, and if you're in the creation phase, you should probably stick to the methods that have worked for you in the past and forge through. But if you know a copywriting or content project is on your horizon, you can set yourself up by doing this research early.

That way, when you sit down to write, you know from whom you want to steal.

Any good criminal—I mean, artist—will tell you how important who really is.