How To Be Original In Your Writing
How To Be Original In Your Writing
By Neal Martin/ December 11, 2014
Last Updated April 27, 2023
You wanna mess up a writer tell them to write something original. See how long it takes them to freeze up and then fall to bits.
What many beginning writers fail to realize to their detriment is that purposely trying to come up with wholly original stuff is folly and only results in one thing: writers paralysis.
Writers paralysis is when you get so twisted up you simply can’t write. In trying (in vain) to come up with things that no one else has done before, the writer, obviously unable to achieve this high level of originality, ends up writing nothing at all.
I’ve news for you: there is no point trying to be original on purpose when everything has already been done before.
There is truth in that old adage that there is nothing new under the sun. That saying comes from the Bible, a book that was published thousands of years ago (even if it has gone through umpteen rewrites since then). If there was nothing new back then, what makes you think there is going to be anything new now?
So should a writer just abandon the idea of originality and rip off everything else of instead?
A writer can still be original but they have to change their perspective first and ask themselves what it really means to be original.
What Does It Mean To Be Original?
When publishers say they want to see original ideas and original work, what they really mean when they say that is that they want to see the same old things, but done in a different way.
Originality then comes from doing things that have been done many times before, but doing those things differently enough that they come across as original.
Look at some of the biggest selling books of recent years. Twilight, for instance. How original is that? Vampires, werewolf’s, doomed romance, emo characters. Yawn. Seen it all a million times before. So why is Twilight hailed as something original, like it treads new ground? Because it uses the same tired tropes but puts them together and expresses them in a different way, that’s why.
Same for Harry Potter. Magic, wizards, a young apprentice magician? Evil nemesis? Sound familiar? Of course. But JK Rowling put all those things together in a way that made her stories original, like nothing quite seen before
Fifty Shades Of Grey? Come on! How many times has that story been told? Yet EL James managed to tell it in a fairly original way that managed to capture people’s attention.
How about in the movies? Rocky, for instance. Yet another underdog story. How many such stories have you read or seen on the screen? Loads probably. But would you say Rocky is original? Damn right! Stallone took a tired formula and made it great, made it “original”.
Did any of these writers set out to write something original? I seriously doubt it.
Those writers set out first and foremost to tell a story and express what was inside them.
It was the way they told the story and the choices they made within the story that eventually made the story itself original enough to stand out.
To capture someones attention you have to give them what they want, but in a way they don’t expect it.
How To Be Original
If you want to be a writer then one of the first things you have to do is get that idea of having to be original out of your head. Like I said, it will paralyze you. Every idea you come up with, when you measure it against this scale of originality you have in your head, will fall flat. Of course it will, because every idea has already been done.
The point is that you can’t let that stop you from writing!
In purposely trying to be original you are creating an unnecessary barrier for yourself, one which is impossible to climb, which is why you will end up writing nothing.
I erected that barrier in front of myself for years and consequently never advanced much further. If I manged to get writing at all I would often stop because I didn’t think what I was writing was original enough.
And while we’re at it, who said that all stories have to be original anyway? What’s wrong with just telling a good story, even if said story has been heard a million times before?
The point is, if people enjoy reading that story, that’s all that matters.
What you should be aiming for when writing a story is writing it well and making it entertaining for the reader. Forget about being original.
My latest novel is about a young girl who comes of age as a demon hunter. She then has to learn the ropes as a hunter and use her skills to stop an evil demon from destroying the world.
How many times have you heard a similar premise? Hundreds of times, I’d bet.
Did I let the fact that the premise of my story had been done before stop me from writing it?
Fuck no! I went ahead and wrote that mothefucker anyway!
And guess what? The finished story ended up being something…wait for it…original! No one before me had written a story in the exact way way that I did. The characters were different from any others, the scenes, the action, the dialogue…everything was different.
Because I wrote it!
And that’s something you have to remember when coming up with stories. Your initial ideas will seem trite and unoriginal, but that’s okay. The more you develop those ideas, the more original they will become.
It’s you that’s original, not the ideas you come up with.
Ultimately, it is you that will infuse your ideas and stories with enough of yourself to make the finished product original enough to stand out from every other book.
No one else will write quite like you. No one else will make quite the same choices. Therefore, what you write will end being original.
But you have to trust that this will be the case. If you try to reverse that process and aim for originality in the beginning, you will get nowhere.
Originality has to emerge throughout the process, it has to be a consequence of the choices you make while writing.
Originality is an end result, not a starting goal.
Keep that in mind when you are coming up with ideas and stories. By the time you have finished your final draft, you will have something original on your hands.
Yes it may be same old shit, but it will be the same old shit done in a slightly different way.
Does that mean you shouldn’t try hard to be different? Of course not.
Although you may be working with the same shit, you should still try your best to make it different shit, but do so in the midst of the writing process, not before you even begin.
Originality does not come from thinking yourself into paralysis, it comes from engaging with the creative process, trusting your subconscious to make the right creative choices and actually finishing what you started. That’s what breeds originality.
Start with the familiar, end with it being different.
By the time those familiar ideas get filtered through you, they will have inevitably changed enough to become (reasonably) original.
In the meantime, stop thinking in terms of originality and start thinking more in terms of developing and writing and finishing, because that’s where originality ultimately springs from.
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