‘How To Steal Like An Artist’ - Writing Advice From Austin Kleon

‘How To Steal Like An Artist’ – Writing Advice From Austin Kleon

In this post, Writers Write looks at writing advice from Austin Kleon. He wrote How To Steal Like An Artist, a manifesto of creativity in the digital age.

‘How To Steal Like An Artist’ – Writing Advice From Austin Kleon

Source: Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0.

About Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon was born on 16 June 1983 in Circleville, Ohio. Three of his books have made the New York Times bestsellers list: How To Steal Like An Artist (2012), Show Your Work (2014), and Keep Going (2019). In his own words, he is a ‘writer who draws.’ Austin Kleon lives in Austin, Texas.

About How To Steal Like An Artist

This is Austin Kleon’s manifesto on modern creativity. It addresses both visual artists and writers alike. Kleon tries to debunk romanticized ideas about how creative people should live and work. His approach is refreshingly hands-on, and so protective of people starting out on their creative journeys.

Writing Advice From How To Steal Like An Artist

1. ‘All advice is autobiographical.’

When you hear other people’s advice, ask yourself what made them give that advice. Every bit of advice is shaped by the life leading up to it. Just because advice is given doesn’t mean you have to take it.

2. ‘Steal like an Artist […] All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.’

Isn’t that a relief? No need to be completely original. After all, how could you be? After over 2000 years of human history, it’s perfectly all right to draw on other people’s ideas. But don’t plagiarize. Decide carefully who and what you allow to be a part of your writing soul.

When you find an idea or a motif that you like, Kleon suggests you put it in a ‘swipe file.’ It’s a collection of inspiring things and a great resource for your own work.

3. ‘Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started […] we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying […] Copying is about reverse-engineering.’

When you copy your writer-heroes, you can find out how they’ve accomplished their work. Writers copy to receive a lesson. Once the lesson is learned, writers can apply it to their work.

4. ‘Whenever you’re at a loss for what move to make next, just ask yourself, ‘What would make a better story?’’

Simple advice, tricky to follow. When we’re writing a story, we’re immersed in the plot. But when we’re stuck, we need to detach ourselves from the story and decide in cold blood what’s best for the story. It all boils down to this well-known phrase: ‘kill your darlings.’

5. ‘Use Your Hands […] The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us – we start editing ideas before we have them.’

Most creative people feel more satisfied with their work if it’s tangible in some way. Writers often use printouts for this. Kleon wants to physically separate the creative process from the editing process. Why? Because we need to be playful to be creative. The computer, however, makes it too easy for us to press that delete button. Kleon has found a way out. His office has two desks. His playground is the ‘analog desk’ with papers, scissors, and markers. This is where Kleon starts his ideas. Then he transfers them to the editing desk with its computer and printer. When he runs out of steam, he heads back to his workstation again.

6. ‘Practice productive procrastination.’

We always tell ourselves not to procrastinate. But then we do. Until our bad conscience kicks in. Kleon procrastinates without remorse. He keeps a few side projects apart from the one big project. Whenever he gets stuck, he simply takes another project and continues there until he gets stuck again. That way, he procrastinates but stays in his creative mode. His side projects all benefit from that.

7. ‘The secret: do good work and share it with people.’

Kleon encourages artists to create every day (that’s ‘good work’). Sharing it is easy these days. All you need to do is put it out there on the internet.

Having a blog or a website also motivates you to create regularly. After all, websites are like containers that continuously ask you to fill them.

8. ‘Geography is no longer our master.’

If you’re stuck in your hometown without any support, then go online! The internet allows us to find our tribe anywhere in the world. But don’t get too comfy online. To be able to create, we need to find new things. We won’t discover them at home, in our comfort zone. Either make your everyday surroundings uncomfortable (see below) or go abroad. Kleon says: ‘Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder.’

9. ‘Be nice. (The world is a small town.)’

We are all hyperconnected. Whenever we talk about people online, they’re sure to find out. The best way to deal with digital enemies is to ignore them. To make friends, all you have to do is say nice things about them. Write fan letters to your heroes but don’t wait for responses.

10. ‘So, get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged, or ignored – the trick is to be too busy doing your work to care.’

If you keep on doing ‘good work’ every day, you’ll be so busy, you won’t have time to waste on hate mail. You have more important things to do. But when you get praise, then print out a copy. Start a ‘praise file.’ It’s a great place to go when you’re feeling low and need a boost.

11. ‘Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)’

Most creative people have a demanding day jobs and need extra energy to do their creative projects on the side. You shouldn’t waste that energy on drugs. So be boring. Live a conventional life. Marry a supportive partner. It’s best to get money-savvy. Keep your day job.

12, ‘Establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time.’

We’ve already talked about working creatively every day. Keeping track of past and future events provides a grid for that. A calendar helps to take a yearly goal and split it into daily chunks. Every day, you can then put an X into the day’s box. That’s already a habit!

To track past events, you can keep a logbook. A conventional diary or a bullet journal with little doodles. This record of small things can help you remember the big details. The logbook can be a source of inspiration for future projects.

13. ‘Creativity is subtraction.’

Subtraction here means focus by using a constraint. These constraints can be anything: time, budget, writing tools, or word counts. It’s a way to make you leave your comfort zone. It’s also a way to make you focus. This, Kleon says, is especially important because we live in an age of ‘information abundance and overload.’

The Last Word

I hope you have found Austin Kleon’s bits of advice just as refreshing as I have. The book itself is fun to read, being a mix of writing and drawing. If you need help with routines and writing habits, I recommend using the resources of our sister website, Deadlines For Writers.

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

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Posted on: 15th May 2023