Why Originality Doesn’t Matter

Your work is not original.

The good news is, that doesn’t matter. It’s not about being original.

I hear this kind of question all the time: has it been done? Of course it has. Listen and listen well. You are not a special snowflake. You cannot originate anything, in the strictest sense of the word. Your ideas do not spring from the void, no matter how little media you consume. You are human and your brain is infected with stories. Why do you think the TV Tropes wiki is such a lumbering monster? You cannot avoid any and every element of trope and still tell a coherent story, because you are human and humans have been doing this thing for thousands of years. Before we could even write, we were telling stories.

It’s not about originality. It’s about conversation, by which I mean responding with your own art to the art that’s come before yours.

That’s why writers will tell you to read, read, and read some more. I’m going to go even farther and tell you to read in your genre. Don’t only read your genre, but you’d better be reading it. How can you write state-of-the-art fantasy if you’re still responding only to Tolkien or Brooks (who was responding directly to Tolkien) or Weis and Hickman (who were responding to Tolkien)? I mean, I love Tolkien, and I still respond to him because that’s what shaped me in a lot of ways, but there’s been so much between him and now that, come on, pick something else, too. Respond to the canon, ask it questions, challenge and twist it.

It’s not going to “corrupt your voice.” I don’t think that’s even possible, but that’s a post for another day. Read and respond, read and respond. How do you think philosophers, painters, musicians do it, anyway? Listen, not even the screeching of demented monkeys as they fling their shit at the walls is original. Monkeys have been doing that for a long time.

Don’t be a monkey. Read and respond. Get into the conversation. Who wants to be a special snowflake, really, anyway? It’s more fun to talk to people.

17 thoughts on “Why Originality Doesn’t Matter

  1. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that argument: “But it will corrupt my voice!” or “But I’m afraid I’ll unintentionally steal something!”


    There is nothing new under the sun. It’s all about our take on the subject matter and our presentation of it.

    1. That’s sometimes — often — to the writer’s advantage though, don’t you think? 🙂 They might not have read your book before they discovered it through something else they loved, especially with web searches these days.

  2. Good points gracefully made, as usual.

    Being affected by the works I read isn’t corruption. It’s education. If I’m not influenced in some way, then the words aren’t doing their job.

    Everyone is different, but I know from experience that reading does change my “voice.” Any doubts I might have entertained were erased when Beloved InHouse Reader once remarked, “You’ve been reading Bujold again, haven’t you?” after reading a new section. I don’t grasp how people leap from that to thinking they should avoid reading! I know they do, I’ve had spirited discussions with a few of the idea’s adherents, but the logic escapes me.

    Yeah, I have to be careful to monitor what I read directly before a writing session. (Poetry or any heavily stylized prose are Right Out.) So what? I also have to be careful about staying true to character POV and voice, repeating phrases that I adore, and avoiding a million other structural pitfalls.

    It’s all part of the process.

    1. Travis: I don’t mean to be contrary with this, but might I suggest that it’s not your story lines that are original? (Having read none of your work, so…) Perhaps it’s your voice that’s original instead?

      There has been no end of research that demonstrates all story lines can be boiled down to one of several types.

      1. Nat, I don’t mind you disagreeing, I was contrary myself a bit.

        My voice is somewhat original. I suppose there is a unique pattern of words and patterns of phrases I use that could be tagged as mine by expert analysis. But no, that’s not what I mean by being “original.” I’m a science fiction writer and I use ideas on technology that in some cases are unlike any other technical ideas. I have ideas on alien races and the use of magic and other things that, well, if they are not original, they are unlike anything else I know.

        You could argue that at most my story settings are original and the STORIES themselves fall into the same basic patterns other stories fall into. For the most part I would agree. But in hard science fiction in particular (and I tend to write science fiction influenced by actual science if not altogether “hard”), the setting provides the ideas that drive the nature of the story…

      2. It’s true for certain that your setting influences the story. But even your ideas on science are in conversation with actual science. You’re taking ideas and saying, “Yeah, but what if…?” That’s kind of what I meant by conversation.
        I guess I didn’t say enough about — if this is the right word — freshness. In a way, every honestly-written story is unique, because nobody has your precise background, nobody has your influences, and nobody is going to ask *quite* the questions you ask.

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