The Life of a Word Thief

by Jasleena Grewal

My mother taught me not to steal. However, I rebel when it comes to writing. Since a young age, I have been an avid reader, but as I entered college, I began to experience the drudgery of academic reading. In order to keep my interest in what I was reading, I began to steal words, phrases, and passages which inspired me. I copied down my literary finds in a journal, and referenced them in times of writer’s block. It was like having a personalized thesaurus and reference for ideas.

During my sophomore year at UW Bothell, I was required to write a descriptive narrative of a leisurely walk for one of my classes. At first, I asked myself how much description I could possibly tack on to a few simple footsteps I took down a street. I stared at the only sentence I had typed in my Word document:

“I started my walk by a tall tree.”

Feeling discouraged, I flipped through my journal. I found a book passage that I had written down a long time ago. It read:

“Beyond the jagged hole where the window had been, the closest mountainside was a raging inferno.” -Julia Alvarez, Time of the Butterflies

I remembered why I wrote down the passage in the first place. Alvarez had used descriptive words and phrases, such as “jagged” and “raging inferno,” which painted a vivid picture in my head. I realized that using visual cues and imagery in my writing could help my reader feel more connected to my narrative. With this in mind, I began writing:

“I started my walk by a tall tree. The apex of the tree overlooked the peaks of Mt. Si and a raging waterfall. I wish I could see what the tree saw. Instead, I was staring at a bare hillside and a scanty, dried-out river.”

In this instance, I stole the word “raging” because it helped me visualize the rapid and intense movement of the water, similar to a fiery inferno. My reader could imagine the scenery and movement, as well as understand that my walk was exceptionally ordinary, compared to an idealized and dramatic visual.

As I continue to practice word theft, I am able to construct my own voice while building upon and learning from the ideas of others. I have also become a close reader, because I am thinking about the content of each sentence as I search for words to steal. My vocabulary has also improved, because I find myself slipping some of my stolen words into everyday conversations.

So, next time you’re faced with a case of writer’s block, think about consulting a literary resource to find some ideas that may inspire you. It is important to “steal”, or select, pieces that you feel a connection to. This is because it is easier to motivate yourself to write with a personal attachment to your work.

Remember, though, that it’s one thing to be inspired by other writers and another thing to completely copy another’s words or ideas. If you incorporate another’s work into your own, either by paraphrasing or directly quoting, be sure to include the proper citation to give that author credit.

As a writing consultant, I hope that I can practice word thievery when I am reading my peers’ writing. Likewise, I hope my peers steal words from me. Despite my mother’s advice, that is the one instance in which theft is totally acceptable.


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