It’s tough to be original

Our Policy - Originality
Our Policy – Originality (Photo credit: Vintaga Posters)

Interesting piece in The Globe and Mail on this by Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, (a Florida-based organization that helps to improve American journalism):

Originality is elusive today in every place that people write – not just in journalism, but in academia, professional writing, book publishing, speech writing and politics.

In our panic to keep up with a changing world, we’ve failed to identify new methods for originality. We need to look to the writer-editor relationship, to the community of writers and thinkers and to the very process that writers use to go from nothing to something.

We’re mystified by the prospect of building a culture that breeds original thinking and writing in today’s digital world. Yet, we can look to writers who are successfully hitting the mark of originality and imitate their methods.

McBride points out that many writers now feel compelled to read everything already produced on their subject before diving into it themselves:
“There’s so much that’s been written about any given topic because writing now is mostly the continuation of a conversation already in play.”
So the challenge is real. Read (too much?) and risk the very real disaster of even unconscious plagiarism or start out fresh and blind, making it up as you go along.
In the old days, it was pretty clear that producing quality journalism meant GOYA (get off your ass) and leaving the newsroom. Talking to people face to face. Working your beat and your sources to hear something new and unheard of.

I try to find stories people haven’t yet heard and/or to tell them in a way that’s fresh and new. Of course, some stories are bread-and-butter, straightforward assignments that pay my bills, with a very clear brief from my client or editor.

Being original means taking a risk — of looking foolish, of being so far out ahead of everyone that they’re laughing at you, of getting it wrong, of positing a theory no one agrees with. It’s safer to stay tucked into the middle of the pack.
Unless you choose to self-publish, (not a paid option for most serious journalists), you  have to please a pile of editors, who can each shrug, dismiss or deny the value of your ideas.
So “originality” becomes a matter of consensus, a committee effort.
In my efforts to create original work, I try to conceptualize and thereby report differently from others, who often rush the process. For my most recent New York Times story, I spent an hour with almost everyone I interviewed, 12 sources in all. That’s a lot of time, (plus writing and answering editors’ questions) and, arguably, not the most efficient or profitable use of it for a freelancer who gets only one set fee, no matter how much time it takes. Many reporters devote 10 to 20 minutes to an interview and end up with rote, shallow answers.
Which might be why so much of today’s journalism is useless, a regurgitation of the same five ideas.
When I wrote “Malled”, I read ten other books about retail, labor and low-wage labor before finishing my manuscript. I didn’t worry about plagiarizing as I’m careful to attribute and give credit. I needed to broaden and deepen my understanding of these complex issues. An academic would argue that reading only 10 books was hopelessly insufficient.
Given the size of publishing’s current paychecks, it’s a constant battle between being thorough and engaging, making a living or sticking to ramen. I knew few writers who can afford to spend the kind of time we’d ideally prefer on our work.
Being original? It’s hard to find the time, literally, to step off the hamster wheel of production to ponder, read widely, talk to people not part of our day-to-day income streams. It’s necessary though.
It’s also a rare editor, in journalism or publishing, who’s willing or able to defend a story that’s truly off the margins. The easiest way to sell your new book proposal is by comparing it to three best-sellers just like it, which reassures nervous publishers. (Even then, it’s still a crapshoot, they all admit.)
Do you struggle creatively to produce work that’s original?
How do you achieve it?

17 thoughts on “It’s tough to be original

  1. I do struggle sometimes, especially when you consider that a lot of works tend to resemble each other in certain ways (Game of Thrones resembles Tolkein, Eragon resembles every piece of work out there, etc). But I try to make it all my own story, and usually it ends up working out.

  2. Great blog this week and certainly food for thought. I struggle internally that sometimes my work is similar to various author’s I read. It’s never the exact same but I find similarities. That’s when I have to break away from the books and departure of subjects to get back to what I feel is original and still something enjoyable for me. It’s a leap into the uncertain, but it can be exciting too. It’s tough, because although I love to write, I love to read too it all shapes me I suppose.

  3. I’ve just finished “1493” (social history) and have dived into “Voyageur”, a nutty Briton’s tale of canoeing in a birchbark cane through the Rockies. Such different voices! I need to see how others handle non-fiction to learn from their skill. I may not want to copy or ape them, but I think we all have to see what others do, and really good ones, to learn from them.

  4. I love this post. I actually wrote one similar for a web site that I run. Taking a risk and putting yourself out there can be pretty scary, especially with something creative since it’s a part of who you are. I think the best way to push forward is knowing that no one can do what you do exactly the way you do it and “better” is only a matter of perception.

  5. Wonderful article!
    I do struggle to create. My first struggle is…am I good enough. My next struggle is the technique. Finally, I have to take a deep breathe and say, “you can do this.”

    1. I think anyone hoping to create faces these demons. I think those who don’t are fortunate but can also be brought down by hubris (she said, sounding very Canadian.)

      “Good enough” is a tough one. For whom? The commercial marketplace?

  6. I’ll jump right to the issue of unconscious plagiarism and my fear of doing that. After 35 years of professional singing, learning a great deal of music for one-time use, and being a very “quick study” (i.e. someone who learns new material quickly and can perform it with little or no rehearsal), I have developed a tremendous memory for lyrics and phrases. The better written a song is, the easier it is to learn. The better prose writers often turn beautiful phrases that delight me as well.

    Now I’m hitting that age where my great skills at taking in information have a possible downside. As my mental filing system gets more overloaded and possibly less reliable, I feel quite concerned that I will use something I have heard or read somewhere, without realizing it. No one believes in giving credit where it is due more than I do, but I do understand how someone could use something they read without realizing they had done so. I’ve written well over 100 songs and a couple of them seem so much more artful than some of the others that I wonder if they are truly mine. I’ve tried googling some of the lines (got nothing) and showing the lyrics to people who should know (no one says they sound like anything they have heard before) so I may just be getting into a more mature creative flow in my writing, but it’s nerve-wracking to wonder about it…

    I think we all “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Who said that? I just googled and found that that phrase is usually attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, but it originally appeared in the 12th century attributed to Bernard of Chartres – my point exactly! It wasn’t even original with Newton! Ownership of intellectual property is a tricky concept. It’s so important for us to give credit to creative people. The originators of ideas must be able to make a living from their originality, but also It’s essential for people to learn and borrow from each other, using the new ideas in order to move the culture forward as a whole.

  7. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I feel a similar dread which is why (however stupid this sounds) I actually try to restrict my reading, viewing and listening.

    I am well aware that the work I produce is not likely to be 100% original (wouldn’t that be great?) but often synthesizes the ideas of others, whether 12th century or last week’s NYT…I think writers can be a little more honest, if they so choose (or their editors demand) by using links, footnotes, end-notes and/or a bibliography. I prefer to read books that make clear what debts they owe and to whom.

  8. I am in the middle of writing a novel which has changed how I read other people’s work. I look for the hooks, the set ups, the “why is this interesting,” the little things that keep people reading and what is an utter turn off. Because one of the characters is a ‘bad boy,’ I also find myself want to read autobiographies on real life bad boys to figure out their attraction. In doing this, I find a form/format. In the end, it is up to me to make it interesting.

  9. Nemesis

    Herman Mellville.

    1891 he demises in poverty and obscurity…

    …”Moby-Dick; or, The Whale has become Melville’s most famous work and is often considered one of the greatest literary works of all time. It was dedicated to Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne.[13] It did not, however, make Melville rich. The book never sold its initial printing of 3,000 copies in his lifetime, and total earnings from the American edition amounted to just $556.37 from his publisher, Harper & Brothers. Melville also wrote Billy Budd, White-Jacket, Israel Potter, Redburn, Typee, Omoo, Pierre, The Confidence-Man and many short stories, including “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” and “Benito Cereno,” and works of various genres”….

    “The Confidence Man” and “A Story of WallStreet”!!! ‘Ahead of his time’ would appear to be something of an ‘understatement’ for poor old Herman.

    Still, his literary chops – contemporaneous poverty notwithstanding – are undeniable. I’ll bet he was really pissed about Dickens, though.


    1. Nemesis

      Elijah the foundering Novelist, in a fit of pique occasioned by his receipt of yet another crushing rejection notice, decides to practice his ‘elevator pitch’ on unsuspecting sailors Ishmael and Queequeg….

  10. this is why i hate those stupid songs that just take someone else’s music and the alleged artist puts his own words to it. we did that in 6th grade as a joke, and these guys are making millions from it.

  11. I used to think that originality was what you produced. Now, I feel that it’s more the process you go through to create. I think your process is original in that you take the time to get the real story no matter the cost, where most don’t. Regardless of what editors will let you do, you have your process and in that space it’s possible to be creative. I’m not a journalist, but as a writer and artist, the process is a much more prized possession than the end result. Great post, thanks for sharing.

    1. I do have very specific limits on how much time I can afford to spend on any story…I’d make more money if I worked less on some of them. So I think there is much better work being done on many stories, but by people with a staff salary or being paid a much higher rate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s