False impressions of originality: an original take on being original

You probably hear people complaining a lot that there are no original ideas anymore. Nothing seems new. Hence why Hollywood is inundated with sequels and we still attend the same old music festivals using the same old promotional techniques. To come up with a tangible ‘thing’ that is really new may well be an impossibility. Perhaps it always was, and now we are just more aware of it.

‘Originality’ is something of a nightmare word when it comes to assessments and assignments. Many course handbooks promote the academic merit of originality and encourage this as something to integrate throughout your experience of the course in question. The very thought of ‘integrated originality’ can make you want to curl up a bit inside as you start to enter something of an intellectual panic. How are you meant to come up with something totally new? How do you know it is really new, and not simply new to you? What if you find that someone has written exactly about what you are writing about a mere few days before the submission deadline? Essay extensions won’t save you now.

This panic, perhaps, stems from a misunderstanding of what originality means. It is often seen as a ‘thing.’ Browsing various definitions of ‘original’ in the Oxford English Dictionary (and there a surprising number of them), you find an emphasis on what came first, and what came after as a kind of opposite; the unoriginal. If you find that someone has already written about colonial politics in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, for example, you would be tempted to kiss your essay prize goodbye. Because, apparently by definition, it could not be original.

Except, somewhere in the dirty depths of language, it can be interpreted that ‘originality’ is not a thing or even a property in the immediately obvious sense – it is a process. It is what sits alongside the focusing of labour and production into a finished product, rather than characterising the product itself. 

If originality is understood like this in dominant modes of thought, it can prove to be liberating. It almost does not matter what the subject of your essay is – handy for essays that require answers to the same question as set by the course organiser. 

As long as you tackle it in a way that the marker does not expect – making independent connections, conclusions derived from lectures but which state something new in addition, and so on – then there is your claim to originality. This can be difficult with short essays of course, but it can be done, and your essay marks will profit.

How exactly can you do this? Many classic revision techniques, if adapted, can help. If you like your mind maps, for example, have two separate ones – one for the content of the essay, and then one for different ways you may approach the subject and any ideas that spring to mind in the moment when everything is laid out in front of you. If you are more of a list person, the same logic can apply. Adapting your essay planning techniques to place emphasis on the process as well as the content can help you take an arguably unoriginal topic and make it original, exemplifying an impressive level of critical and free thought. After all, what says ‘critical’ and ‘free’ like arguing with a dictionary?

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