The secret to success in any creative venture, column writing included, is finding your own voice and sharing your unique view of the world.
But being original is tricky these days — especially now that we’re all exposed to so many other voices, trends, and ideas. Google any topic online, and you’ll find scores of articles, poems, essays, blog posts, or books already written about it. You’d like to believe it was your brilliant idea — but apparently a lot of other people thought of it first. Even if it’s unintentional, there’s a lot of copycat work floating around in cyberspace.
When I started freelance writing for newspapers in the early 1980s, I didn’t have the convenience of the Internet. I did my research at the local library or in phone interviews. I paged through heavy dictionaries to check spelling and usage. I typed my articles on an electric typewriter, then dropped them off at the local newspaper office or snail-mailed them to out-of-town editors. I had to make a bigger effort to see what other writers were publishing or what was trending in the news. I read a lot of hard copy, subscribing to newspapers and magazines that published the type of work I wanted to do.
Not that I’d ever want to work that way again. I’m only suggesting it was easier to be fresh and original in those days. You had to take a chance on the creative ideas that popped into your own head — rather than emulate what other people were putting out there. Instead of rehashing the hot topic of the moment, you wrote about what you knew or genuinely cared about, or what you wanted to learn.
In 1993, Anne Lamott wrote Operating Instructions, a memoir of her first year of motherhood. I was awed by her candor and courage in describing the challenges of being a single mom and a recovering alcoholic. To borrow from a quote on Pinterest, Lamott’s voice is hers alone — not an echo. Soon after, the motherhood memoir market was saturated with copycat mommy blogs and memoirs, and it was harder to pitch personal pieces to parenting publications.
With millions of writers and artists promoting their work on websites, blogs, and other social media, it’s harder to dazzle editors with something new.
My husband, an artist, and I often talk about the perks and challenges of doing any type of creative work today. We often discover that dozens of others have already produced or published what we thought were our own ideas — before we had a chance to take them out for a test run. Do we produce them anyway and risk plagiarism? Or move on to the next idea? It’s easy to get discouraged or frustrated, even though we know better.
Lately I’ve found that I’m better off limiting my time on social media. For starters, I appreciate my own life more when I’m not watching what other people are doing. I stumble on the best creative inspiration when I visit art and science museums, hike outdoors, explore different towns, browse in bookstores, watch independent films, try new recipes, or engage in face-to-face conversations with people — anything that wakes me up and makes me look at the world with fresh eyes.
I remind myself, too, that truly original people — whether they write newspaper columns, design websites, or paint landscapes — will always put their own spin on anything they do. Even if it’s been done before.
Reposted with permission from National Society of Newspaper Columnists