When I first started writing, I loved the idea of inventing something entirely new from a medium as old as time. I thought of myself as an artist and a visionary, and on my more melodramatic days, I still do. But, more often than not, I consider myself more of a ‘word juggler’ than an original writer. This is why…
Employers want copycat writers
Since starting writing professionally, by which I mean someone occasionally pays me to do it, I’ve written less original content than ever before.
Not all employers want copycat writers, obviously. Plenty of magazines and papers want original, surprising, thought-provoking stuff. But, there are a lot more employers who would just like something ‘the same but different’ as something else.
It makes sense from a business perspective to do what’s already working in that industry. But, what that means for me as a writer is that very few of my jobs require me to write something unique or original.
Now, I’m bordering on sounding much older than my years here by raging against technology and innovation, but I’ll take that risk.
Fitting my writing to SEO, keywords and search terms is the bane of my life. For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of writing SEO-friendly content, it requires sticking lots of popular search engine terms into your article.
On the one hand, making sure your articles are jam-packed with these terms ensures that your writing will be found and read. And, having your work read is really the point of being a writer, isn’t it?
On the other hand, trying to fit a load of awkward Google search terms into your writing is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, a really crap, annoying jigsaw puzzle.
Somone’s already written it
The other day, I came across a review about a café that I had reviewed earlier that month. As I skimmed through, I scoffed at how obvious it was that they’d copied my piece – “I used that exact word!” “Could they be anymore obvious about ripping off my article!?” “Jeez, get your own ideas.” – only to find that it had been written months before my review… Awkward.
This got me thinking about how unique even an original piece of writing can be. When I write about something, I can be 99% certain that I’m not the first person to write about it. (Unless I’m writing something particularly clever, which is rare.) I mean, people have been writing for thousands of years, so it’s not too surprising that most things have been said before. But, it’s always a little disconcerting when you see your own ‘original’ ideas already in print.
I’m just swapping letters back-and-forth
Following on from talking about whether it’s possible to write something truly original, I’m going to look at the techinical side of the English language. (Bear with me here, it’s more interesting than it sounds.)
There are only 26 characters in the modern English alphabet, which has been used (according to my research) since about the 16th century. As you can imagine, a lot has been written since then, and it’s pretty likely that every combination of letters in a sentence has been used before already.
If you want confirmation of this, try writing a paragraph or two and checking it for plagiarism on an online plagiarism checker. You will likely find that at least a part of what you’ve written has already been written online before.
If you want to get even freakier, go to The Library of Babel, which includes every combination of letters (and punctuation) of up to 3,200 characters. That means that every sentence you have written or could ever write (up to that amount of characters) is already in there… MIND. BLOWN.
Even fiction can’t always be original
Most of what I’ve covered so far is about non-fiction writing, however, there are similar problems with fiction.
If we’re talking practically about making a living from writing fiction, that can still require writing to a ‘brief’ in many ways. You might want to apply to a literary competition and have to follow a certain theme or style. You might want to submit a novel to a publisher and have to write something that will fit into the current literary market. Or, you might just be writing rhyming poem and are disappointed to find you can’t end a line with the word ‘orange’.
Maybe it’s just the landscape of fiction right now, or maybe I’m just being too closed minded!
That damn subconscious of mine
One of my worst habits when writing fiction is that I subconsciously steal ideas. I don’t realise I’m doing it most of the time. But, I often come across scenes from films and chapters from books (and even stories my friends have told me) a second time around, only to realise I’ve blatantly ripped them off in a story.
Some will say that everything has to be inspired by something. Others will say, ‘get your own frickin’ ideas!’
Maybe I’m wrong…
So, fellow writers, what do you think?
Do you consider yourself an artist or a ‘word juggler’?
Can you ever write something truly original?
Is rewriting or writing something ‘the same but different’ still writing?
Does it matter if someone else has written something before?