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Writers and Their Sources

August 25, 2021

American author Washington Irving (1783-1859) once wrote a clever spoof on writers he supposedly discovered in a library busy copying from older authors. The faces of famous authors glared angrily from their portraits on the walls. They could do nothing about this theft. They were dead white males!

While outright theft is not really an acceptable writing technique by today’s standards, Irving’s point should be well taken by young authors—especially English majors at Southern. All writing is in some way derivative. No one writes completely originally. That’s impossible.

So where does the material for a piece of writing come from? Students often ask, “Do we need to do research for this paper?” Actually, nobody can write anything without “research.” There are many, many sources, and all good writers must know where to go to find what they need for the writing task they are working on.

Material may come from experience, observation, discussion, introspection, imagination, synthesis, formal invention and inquiry, formal reasoning, memory, culture, reading and research, surveys, experimentation, and education. I stole this list from Nevin K. Laib’s book Rhetoric and Style: Strategies for Advanced Writers, 1993. The list of possible sources is certainly not original to Laib, but I thought he was clever to bunch these sources into such a neat package, so I’m giving him credit he doesn’t really deserve.

At that’s the key. Writers are free to borrow, without attribution, certain ideas and facts that represent common knowledge not “owned” by a specific writer. Writers “own” their self expression and all new insights—that is, new insights and the manner of expression, the words used in a certain order and style.

Other than that, I’m free as a writer to “borrow” all I want. Young writers should never feel that writing is about sitting at a keyboard creating material out of thin air. This is a hard way to create! Writers should read a lot and get inspiration and ideas from those sources—inspiration and ideas that they have generated from reading. That’s how to use sources properly.

Most writing in life will involve finding something to say through inspiration and ideas that originated elsewhere and then blending that writing into a meaningful whole. It’s the words and the shape of the whole that becomes “original” to individual writers.

Stop trying to be completely original. That’s a technique doomed to fail.