Apprentice Wordsmith A Writer's Blog

Stop Trying to be Unique

I recently filled out a job application for a company which I’ll leave unnamed, and one of the questions was:

“In 150 characters or less, tell us what makes you unique. Try to be creative and surprise us.”

I initially drew a blank. It wasn’t the character limit that was the stumbling block. Twitter has invaded our social fabric, like it or not. And for this particular company, the tweet-length answer wasn’t a surprise.

Here’s my real dilemma. They’ve already received hundreds if not thousands of applications for this job. They’ve read hundreds if not thousands of answers to this question. The chances that I’d produce something completely unlike what they’ve seen before are slim to none.

Oh don’t be so hard on yourself, Joyce. You’re a talented and unique person. Surely anything you write will be enough.

Thanks for the encouragement, Mom. But let’s be honest here – it’s hard to be original and creative. A major reason (if not the biggest reason) why this is so is because inspiration is fickle. Many writers, thinkers, and creatives have mused long on the nature of inspiration, so I won’t go down that well-trod path. But this situation did lead me to think about where inspiration comes from.

After I was done philosophizing on topic (which I’ll share in a future post), I returned to what experience has taught me over fifteen years of writing. One lesson is that, in the end, it doesn’t matter where inspiration comes from. It’s what you do with it that counts.

The pressure to be unique, creative, and different can be crippling for any writer – for any kind of artist – but especially for those just starting out. One piece of advice that I wish I had heard when I was a beginner is to approach your writing like how a software developer approaches a project.

No, really. Hear me out on this one.

I don’t consider myself a skilled programmer, but I did spend two years teaching myself HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It’s the reason why I have a GitHub account, and what led me to host this blog on GitHub. Though I haven’t written much code recently, I still follow tech news – not just from the consumer side, but the developer side as well: new languages, new tools, new platforms, etc.

From what I’ve observed, developers are, by and large, pragmatic people who have nurtured a culture of share and share alike. This is especially true of the open source community. If you read their blogs or visit their forums (like stackoverflow), one phrase that’s often directed at novices is “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” They are encouraged to steal code that has proven to work and build off of that. The focus of the project is not to figure out new ways of doing everything. Instead, it’s figuring out how to do one thing differently, or how to combine these familiar components in a different way.

The same applies for writing words. Don’t be afraid to steal what you’ve seen work before.

Now I’m not saying you should put Gandalf, Captain Kirk, and Inigo Montoya in the OK Corral at high noon opposite Professor Moriarty, Captain Hook, and Darth Vader. (Unless you’re writing fan fiction. Then have at it.) What you can do, though, is use the same archetypes: the wise old wizard, the reckless but good-hearted space captain, the skilled swordsman out for revenge. Settings and situations also have archetypes; in our scenario, it’s the battlefield.

The focus now is how your space captain or your wizard is different. What makes him (or her) an individual? Another focus could be how the battlefield is different – a unique place in the geography of your world. What is special about it? Why did both sides choose to meet here? Is it neutral territory?

Don’t reinvent the story if you don’t have to. Focus on putting your spin on the project. As all of our moms would say, you are a unique and talented person. Everything you make will have the mark of you, which no one else in the entire world can replicate.

(This daily dose of warm fuzzies was brought to you by Grandma’s Chicken Soup. It’s cluckin’ good!)

Have you ever felt pressured to create something utterly different and one-of-a-kind? What did you do to bring yourself back to productive flow? For the experienced among us, what is some advice you wish you had been given when you were starting out? Share your thoughts and place your bets on the fan fic showdown in the comments below.

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