In Praise of Unoriginality: Steven Savage
This originally appeared as a post in March 2011.
How many of we writers want to be original? How often do we think about it? Worry about it? How many times do we sit in fear that our latest dream story or creation is repetitive and unoriginal? Such thoughts can quickly lead to obsession for many of us.
Yet is this obsession justified? Is the quest for originality justified despite the concern, the rejected ideas, and the fear that risks paralyzing us? I say no – in fact, I think an obsession with originality is a bad idea.
I’m going to go further out on the limb of weirdness and say that originality can be overrated or even downright bad for you, the writer. I want you to consider being less original in your writing.
Why would I do this? Because there are times originality – or an obsession with it – are not good for you.
Fear of unoriginality can kill imagination. If you’ve got a checklist in your head of what is original and what is not, if you cringe in fear that your new idea might not be innovative enough, then you’re killing your creativity. If you squelch your ability to come up with wild and wonderful ideas, you kill your ability to write.
An obsession with originality can miss the magic moments where you create what I call “but withs” – those stories that are reminiscent of other previously-written tales “but with” some change that lets you see common ideas anew. How many times do we see vampire stories “but with” something else that makes the vampires anew? The beloved Addams Family is a “but with” – a loving family comedy “but with” a horror edge that parodies the very family elements. “But withs” are not original – that’s the point – they are extensions.
The terror of being unoriginal can miss those moments where you can create something that is not unique and new, but is still very good. There are times you readership may not want (or care about) some brilliant new idea – they may want an old standby. Just as we may not want to try new foods all the time, just as we may love to listen to new mixes of our favorite songs, we do not always want originality.
Finally, the fear that your ideas are not new and unique enough may cause you to miss the truth that you might do unoriginal work pretty damn well. Maybe you’re a person that can write an otherwise overdone story or character so well that your talent breathes new life into the tired and trite. You might just be the person to make people go “wow” at something that in the hands of someone else wouldn’t be as good. You might just be good at doing things done before and entertaining people.
So stop worrying about originality so much, and instead ask what place originality has in your works. Maybe you really do want to break new ground, maybe you do “but withs”, maybe you really like working with well-worn ideas. Whatever works, find what works for you, and stop being afraid of unoriginality.
Instead go be good at your writing. Originality is just a part of it.
Steven Savage, self-described “professional geek”, is the author of the Fan to Pro blog and books (Unlocking Career Insights With Your Hobbies and Progeek Rising), has his own web site, and incidentally is the mind behind the popular Seventh Sanctum site.