Ever spent countless hours trying to come up with “a new idea” for your post, blog, article, pitch, novel, whatever?
If so, first, welcome to the club, and, second, I have good news and bad news all wrapped into one: new ideas are not a thing.
I know, this might sound clickbaity and edgy—and, indeed, it’s meant to be a little provocative. But I believe it also highlights something we tend to forget in our quest for originality: no idea can be 100% original.
Nor does it need to be. In fact, I’m here to tell you what the secret sauce is, and new ideas are an optional ingredient. But before we delve into the recipe, let’s establish why no original idea is, after all, truly original.
Think about the last time you had a “new idea.” Done? Great. Now tell me: was it perchance inspired by something else—something you read, heard, watched, eavesdropped, or dreamed?
If the answer is, “Well, actually, kinda sorta,” don’t feel bad. It’s unavoidable. After all, we don’t live in a vacuum. We are influenced by our experiences, by the books and articles we read, by the places we visit, by what people around us are saying. Creativity is more an exercise in reinventing than in inventing.
Add to that another fact: humanity has been around for a good many centuries. Sure, we didn’t spend them navel-gazing—there have been a couple of dramatic innovations along the way.
But if you go past the surface, you’ll notice that mankind hasn’t changed that much:
Our emotions might be stirred by different sources, but the feelings themselves haven’t changed. We have been experiencing them since the dawn of time. And since the dawn of time, we have written about them.
(If you really are the nitpicking type of person, I’ll grant you that writing came into play at a later stage, when “singing by the fireplace in old manors in Southern France” went out of fashion. But my point still stands.)
So, if you feel pressured to reinvent the wheel every time you come close to a keyboard, don’t. There’s no need to set the bar so high. You’re bound to say something similar to what other people have said before.
And that’s totally fine—so long as you say it with your own voice.
Yup, that’s the secret sauce I was talking about: your voice. How you tell a story is more important than the story itself.
By now, some of you will be rolling your eyes hard enough to take a good look at your own brain.
“‘An original voice,’ she says! It must be great to write such feel-good gobbledygook! Who’ll ever consider my book/article/post/pitch if there’s no new idea behind it?”
And to this very reasonable objection, I’m going to offer my proven technique to make readers’ eyes roll even harder: the pretentious comparison®.
You have probably heard of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 classic. The book is rightly considered a masterpiece of literature—yet there is nothing new in its basic outline. And not just because it deals with the eternal themes of love and death.
A couple decades earlier, a book had been printed in France that shared more than a few similarities with Tolstoy’s. Like Anna Karenina, the French novel featured a woman protagonist who naively thought that great extra-marital sex would solve her problems, and ultimately she committed suicide after discovering that, ahem, if only it worked that way.
Would anyone seriously contend that Anna Karenina lacks originality or is not worth reading because of the plot points it shares with Madame Bovary?
I don’t think so.
It’s not Anna Karenina’s story that makes the book a masterpiece, per se. It’s the way Tolstoy wrote it. As I said before, what he did was less important than how he did it.
And it’s not just Tolstoy, either. (My goal in writing this post is to take some pressure off your chest, not to add more. So let’s forget about him for a moment.)
All of literature revolves around the same tropes. In his 2016 article, significantly titled “All Stories are the Same,” John York argues that storytelling has a specific structure, which goes as far back as civilization itself. Writers can play with this structure, but they cannot alter it radically if they want to achieve the desired result.
Think about it. If we are using the same mold to cast our stories, over and over again, then that’s further proof that what makes the difference is the substance we pour into it—again, the author’s voice.
Here’s the good news: authentic voices come with the package of being human. You have one by virtue of the fact of being you, a unique human being unlike all those who came before or will come after.
I spent the best part of last year reading diaries written by Italian soldiers during World War I. It was a great way to unwind during the pandemic.
The authors were, on the surface, remarkably similar. They were all Italian, men, young. They all belonged to the middle and upper-middle classes. They had all volunteered. The majority were noncommissioned officers, which made them an even more homogeneous group. And obviously, they were all going through the same experience.
Yet no diary was like another. Some graphically described the horrors the authors withstood; others were more lyrical, focusing on pastel-colored dawns on the Adriatic Sea. Some were somber. Others made me laugh out loud. Some were more descriptive, others more reflective.
Each one was unique. As was its author.
Now, let me be clear: some of these diaries were more pleasant to read than others. Certain voices appealed to me, and others didn’t—for various reasons, including style and political outlook.
I am not saying that the uniqueness of your voice is enough to make people like it. I’m not even saying that having an original voice is the same as using it effectively. You might need some work to bring out and refine your voice, and nourishing it will be a lifelong process.
But at least you’ll know that the question you should ask yourself is not “How can I say something that has never been said before?” but rather “How can I express myself in the best way that my voice allows?”
If you are a content writer/business writer/copywriter, you might be wondering how the above applies to you. After all, you don’t have a thousand pages to make your case. You are judged by the headline alone, and you have about two seconds to convince readers that taking five minutes out of their lives to read your content is a worthy investment.
And you might have also heard that “content must be original” (or else you’ll be struck by the ten plagues of Google’s Mountain View Avenue).
Can we really argue that, even when it comes to business writing, voice trumps ideas? Yes, we can. And I’m here to show you how.
Isn’t content writing all about answering the audience’s queries? So why agonize over wheel reinvention when people out there are already telling us which topics they want to read about?
As to *how* you find out what your readers want, well, I’m all for keeping it simple: ask them. I like polls (they’re easy to answer and anonymous), but use whatever method works for you.
If you don’t feel confident asking, you can rely on dear old keyword research. Or you could surf social media to see what people fuss about in your business sector.
Check out groups on Facebook and LinkedIn (choose groups that your customers might join). Read what’s happening on Reddit and Quora. Look into huge blogs. Go to their comment sections and see what people want to know—what remains unclear even after the Big Blog has spoken.
There are infinite ways to find out what’s on your readers’ minds. Just experiment until you find what works for you.
“But if I write the umpteenth article about—say—productivity tips, why would they read it?”
If they searched for “productivity tips,” chances are they want to read about it. They might not find your content if you’re not high in Google’s graces, but if they can see it, they’re going to click on it.
And then it’s once again a matter of how: how comprehensive, how well-researched, how pleasant to read is your answer? That’s what matters.
“Cool, and how do I do that? How do I ensure the quality of my content? How do I make sure it’s different from the others?”
The second question is easily answered: unless you plagiarize someone else, your content will be different because you’re writing from your own perspective and employing your own style.
Quality is a trickier matter, and there is no cookie-cutter solution—not least because it changes depending on the circumstances, whom you ask, and the topic at hand. Again, experiment and be open to feedback.
(One last thing before we move on: do me a favor and go type “productivity tips” into Google. See the headlines? Are they “original”? Do they work nevertheless? Cool.)
There is another way readers might find your content: they specifically seek you out. Maybe they are regular readers of your blog; maybe they came across an article of yours, liked it, and want to find out more; or maybe they’ve been referred by someone who likes you.
Again, what made the difference was not the idea itself but the voice behind it—namely, yours.
There’s no easy way to make this kind of magic happen. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s ultimately up to your readers to decide what floats their boats.
But precisely because of that, you shouldn’t be afraid to use your voice. Offer readers something that cannot be replicated by anyone else (be it your style, your outlook, or both). Some will not like it. But others will be forever thankful.
One last note: don’t let originality get in the way of reliability and effectiveness. Your readers want answers. They want solutions that work. They want options that will make their life easier.
Going back to the “productivity tips” example, yeah, I guess most people would love to hear new tips instead of the same old trite ones. By now, even my cats know that the internet seriously affects productivity.
But they should still be good, actionable tips that deliver what they promise. Your readers won’t like an “original solution” that doesn’t solve anything.
So, if you’re writing about productivity tips (or any other topic, really) don’t include tips you haven’t tried just because “nobody else is mentioning them!” There might be a reason why.
Freeing yourself from the Cult of Originality won’t happen overnight.
(Liking “Cult of Originality”? It’s not my term. I stole it from here—with the author’s blessing.)
And in a way, striving to find a new angle, a new concept, is a good thing, a testament to your commitment as a writer.
Just don’t let it grow to the point where you’re paralyzed by the need to be creative. It isn’t worth it. You’ll naturally become more original once you learn how to leverage whatever element makes your voice unique, without having to obsess over “new ideas.”
Camilla Allegrucci still gets emotional when typing “writer” as her profession in a bio, but hopefully she’ll get used to it. A recovering Ph.D. graduate, she writes content in both English and Italian and works on a novel that might or might not see the light of day before 2050. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her chilling out with her family, reading or screaming at the top of her lungs during a soccer match. She’s happy to connect with you on LinkedIn.