I had just finished reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling and had decided once and for all that I wanted to be a writer. I was in the sixth grade. The fastest route to my goal, it seemed to me at the time, was The Famous Writers School. I had seen an ad for it in the back of one of my parents’ magazines. You could send away for a test, then mail it in and a real writer would look at it to see if you had any talent. If you did, you would be “permitted” to enroll in a correspondence course and become a Famous Writer yourself.
I sent away for it. When the test came, I labored mightily, in secret, in my room, my future at stake. I remember working especially hard on the similes section. Fill in the blank: As white as –. As crazy as –. I knew even then that there were things called cliches and that a real writer didn’t use them. A real writer didn’t write as white as snow or as crazy as a loon. A real writer came up with some wonderful, startlingly original expression. But what should I write? As white as my baby brother’s spit-up? As crazy as Uncle Herman? This similes test, I thought, was the true test, the one that separated the talented from the talentless.
I don’t remember what I ended up writing. But I do remember that about a month after I mailed in the test, a little man in a brown suit came to our front door soon after I got home from East Broadway Elementary School. I was probably in the kitchen eating a Twinkie. He told my mother he represented the Famous Writers School and was here to sign me up for the course. She treated him like any other door-to-door salesman, which is to say, he never got past the screen door. Eavesdropping from the kitchen, I almost didn’t mind. What did the course matter, anyway? I passed the test! My similes had demonstrated my talent.
Thirty years later, I still do battle with cliches, still hunt for the perfect, startling turn of phrase and still believe that originality in writing is what separates the competent from the memorable. But now I know that there is much more to originality than an occasional tweak of the language. Originality of style, I have learned, cannot be separated from originality of substance. In this third and last in the series on how to diagnose and cure your writing ills, I want to focus on originality and what it means in the act of writing.
As you are evaluating an article you’ve written or sitting down to write a new one, ask yourself these questions:
Is the concept for this piece original?
Does my research show originality?
Is my presentation original?
Is the Concept Original?
Originality begins with the thinking-envisioning-dreaming process that accompanies the formulation of a story idea. Two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, who had one of the most original scientific minds of the 20th century, once wrote, “You can’t have good ideas unless you have lots of ideas.” Pauling was acknowledging that even the most creative and unique mind will come up with a number of unworthy or unworkable ideas. The trick is being able to distinguish the one terrific idea from the many commonplace Ones.
Seldom will a clap of thunder and a blinding light accompany a great idea. More likely, you will come to recognize the value of a story idea after giving yourself time to ponder it. Novice writers tend to be stingy with this dreaming-envisioning time, rushing forward to write as soon as possible. But time spent thinking at this early stage is one of the keys to originality.
Looking through your story idea file or reviewing that last piece you wrote, you can ask yourself. Is this a completely new, never-been-told story? Do I have a new and unique slant on an existing story? Are there new questions that might be asked of an old subject? Are there new voices that need to be heard? Originality of concept can take a number of forms.
Truly new, never-been-told stories come to writers who constantly scan the environment, read voraciously, listen intently and have managed to preserve a core of wonder about the world. They read about a new scientific study that links chocolate to longevity. (Okay, I made that one up.) They watch as their community deals creatively with teenage crime. Writers actively seek these original ideas. Some will pan out. Many will not.
More commonly, writers look for new ways to tell enduring, recurring or common stories. They ask the never-been-asked questions of the much-profiled figure. They seek out the never-been-heard voices in an old debate. They travel the back roads, literally and figuratively, to the known destination.
A writer can take an ordinary, much-written-about idea–the Internet as a virtual community, for example–and give it new life by shifting focus. This is what a New York Times writer did recently in a moving story about autistic adults who are finding a sense of community online and discovering that they can communicate more easily on screen than face to face.
It is good to remember that a story can be a cliche before a single word is written. A story can be a cliche in its conception. That’s why it is vital to take the time to think through story ideas before deciding whether to act on them.
Does Your Research Show Originality?
Research is another place a writer can show originality–or suffer under the weight of cliches. Originality in research means going beyond the ordinary and going beneath the surface. It means discovering new sources, listening for new voices and using new technologies. Jot-and-trot daily journalists may make a few quick phone calls to a few Rolodex warriors and call that research, but this is not how meaningful, memorable stories are created.
Take a look at that story you just finished writing or consider your research plan for an upcoming story. Now ask yourself how long you spent thinking about where and how to do your research. A little brainstorming time early in the process can yield significant results. Original, creatively conceived research often unearths original material.
First, consider rethinking your,approach to the people you will be writing about. Don’t just pick up the phone. Don’t just schedule a traditional inter-view. In fact, don’t think of yourself as an interviewer armed with questions. Instead, think creatively: You are an anthropological fieldworker setting out on a mission to understand a new person, a new group, a community. Those of us schooled in traditional journalism think we must talk in order to be working, but anthropologists understand that Sitting and watching are vital information gathering activities, too. There may be questions to ask, but first there are voices to listen to and interactions to observe.
It seems only common sense that people are more themselves when they are living their lives than when they are sitting across the table from a writer answering questions. Allowing people to be who they are by staying in the background can be a key to getting original material.
Even if you are going to schedule a traditional interview, you can foster originality in your research by thinking creatively about sources. The biggest mistake writers make in looking for expert sources is misdefining them. With our national penchant for inflated job titles and our abiding faith in formal education, it is no wonder we tend to define experts by the words and initials surrounding their names rather than by their actual knowledge.
But experts needn’t be credentialed, titled or highly placed. In fact, the closer your sources are to the core of your story, the clearer their vision will be. Thoughtful researchers are rarely content to skim the top layer of officialdom for expert sources. They know that going to the “usual suspects” will net them the usual information. They spend the extra time to find the “hidden” experts.
Finally, if you aren’t already taking advantage of the Internet as a research tool, do it now. The Information Highway may itself be a cliche, but using it to ferret out interesting–especially alternative–sources can bring liveliness and originality to your research. The Internet can be an invaluable “fast fact” tool when you use search engines to find current information on an almost infinite number of topics. This makes some kinds of basic research more efficient and quicker, which is a boon to the busy writer, but it is not what is truly exciting about the new technology.
What is most thrilling is the Internet’s power to link you to people you never would have found otherwise. The people you find–or who find you, if you post a query–are not the usual suspects. They are not the Rolodex warriors, not the over-interviewed folks with pat answers. They are more often fresh voices with fresh perspectives who can infuse your story with original thinking.
Is Your Presentation Original?
“When we put words together … we begin to show our original selves,” writes author Donald Hall. But simply using lovely turns of phrase to dress tip tired stories based on prosaic research doesn’t work. Originality of’ style emerges from originality of substance. First, the material itself must be worthy.
Assuming that’s true, the next challenge is to write with flair, with personality, with freshness and liveliness, with a unique vision that. is yours. I don’t mean that your personality overwhelms the piece. True, there is some writing where the writer is front and center–memoir, the personal essay, the column, for example. But in most magazine and feature writing, the subject, not the author, is at the center. However, what readers learn about the subject is filtered through the intelligence and seen through the eyes of the writer.
If the writer’s vision is the key to original presentation, how about giving yourself an eye exam? Take a look at that story you’ve just written and comb it for outright cliches. A cliche, by definition, lacks originality. It is a trite or overused expression or idea, the image or phrase that springs immediately to mind. We’ve heard it before; we’ve read it before. Cliches take no more time to think of than they do to pound out on the keyboard.
Creating original expressions, on the other hand, is a challenge to your imagination and linguistic powers.
Last month’s article focused on liveliness and detail as two components of stylish writing. Attention to both can contribute to originality in presentation. Here are some other ideas:
* Play with words. Word play is one of the joys of writing. You need not be devastatingly clever to indulge in it. You need only pay close attention to the meaning of words and the possibilities of play. Soap makers are in a lather over increased industry restrictions. Smokers are fuming about new restaurant policies. Even such little linguistic tweaks can add personality to a story. Earlier in this piece, I looked for an original way to characterize journalists who zip in and out of stories. “Jot and trot” is what I came up with. That’s playing with words.
* Play with figures of speech. Similes, metaphors, personification and allusion aren’t the private province of poets and fiction writers. They are important elements for all writers in search of originality and liveliness. The apt analogy, the startling comparison, the unique verbal twist can capture readers’ attentions and make your prose memorable. It’s worth your time–and it takes plenty of it –to create original figures of speech.
* Experiment with rhythm. Words march to a beat. Long sentences move gently, liltingly, picking up momentum as they go. Short sentences create a staccato beat. Purposeful repetition of words and phrases can add rhythm and meter. Original expression means paying attention not merely to the meaning of words but to their tempo, their cadence, their pulse. Write for the ear. Read aloud as you write, toying with word order, repetition, sentence construction, sentence length and parallelism to create rhythm.
* Listen, to sound. “A sentence is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning of words,” wrote Robert Frost. “It must convey a meaning by sound.” Poets know this well. Nonfiction writers ought to learn it. Our language is rich with words that sound like what they mean, like gag, clang, buzz and boom. But many other words, while not actually onomatopoeic, convey meaning by their sound.
Consider the word ungainly–a perfectly serviceable adjective with a distinct meaning. But listen to the word lumbering. Its three syllables roll around the inside the mouth, lips, tongue, throat. The word moves slowly with heavy feet. It lumbers. And oafish, doltish and cloddish–all variations on the theme of ungainliness–sound oafish, doltish and cloddish. So, while ungainly does an adequate job in conveying meaning, the other words can bring a texture to the sentence that elevates it and contributes to originality and liveliness.
It is also the sounds of words placed together that matter. We all know to avoid tongue twisters when we write. But we can also actively seek to construct melodious sentences that sing with meaning.
The most important thing to remember about originality in writing is that it is the sum of several thoughtful–perhaps even inspired–decisions, from conceiving a unique story to researching it in novel ways to writing it with flair. Writers can grow into originality, and their distinct, individual and memorable voices can emerge, after they master the fundamentals. Being your own diagnostician, your own toughest editor–and your staunchest supporter–will take you far.