One of the first assignments in my creative writing course involved a set of four poems. I fancied myself as a bit of a poet, so I was pretty confident I’d nailed it. The lecturer rang to give me feedback and was very positive about two of the poems. However, the other two were not as original as they could have been. As he explained what he meant, I realised that I had used some well-worn phrases and ideas (e.g., God lavishing grace on us and people wearing emotional masks to hide how they really feel). He encouraged me to look for the original thread that would take them out of the ordinary. After revision, one of them was published in an American poetry journal. I’ve never forgotten that advice and try to inject it into all of my writing projects. I don’t always hit the mark, but I know that when I do strike that chord of originality, the whole piece sings.
After using parables to teach his disciples, Jesus said that “every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52, NIV). In the Amplified Bible, that last phrase is translated “the fresh as well as the familiar”. What a great goal for Christian writers.
So how do we inject originality into our writing?
- Read, read, read. One problem with that poetry assignment was that I had hardly read any poetry since leaving school, which was … ahem … a long time ago. I didn’t know what people were writing, I didn’t know how styles had changed, and I didn’t know where to send material. If you read more in the genre that you’re writing, you not only find out what’s already been done, but you also pick up great tips for improving your own writing.
- Look for a fresh angle or perspective. One trick I’ve used in poetry is to write from the point of view of a different character. I’ve had poems published from the perspectives of Rahab, Barabbas, Sapphira, Joseph the father of Jesus, and the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak. I’m sure I’m not the first person to have written poetry about these people, but by taking a different angle, it automatically puts your work into a smaller pool and hopefully brings fresh insights to a familiar story.
- Chart new territory. In some ways, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9), but we can look for new ways of expressing it. For example, if you’re writing a crime novel, we already know that there will be a variety of suspects and a swag of red herrings before the murderer is revealed at the end. What can you do to make the journey through that path more interesting? What if your sleuth isn’t a detective, an FBI agent or a forensic pathologist, but a precocious 11-year-old amateur chemist who lives on the crumbling estate of Buckshaw in 1950s England? Alan Bradley did that to great effect in his highly original Flavia de Luce series. What will be your novel’s unique mark?
- Pray and spend time in the Word. Although I’ve left it until last, this is the most important point. God is the master of originality. If He created the world, surely He can give us great ideas and insights for our own writing. As you spend time in the scriptures, ask Him to show you a fresh angle for a devotion, an original way of progressing your novel or an interesting theme for a poem. After all, He’s never out of ideas.
Nola Passmore is a freelance writer who has had more than 90 short pieces published in various magazines, journals, and anthologies (including true stories, devotions, poetry and short fiction). She has a passion for writing about what God has done in her life and encouraging others to do the same. (Some call it "nagging", but she calls it "encouragement").