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?