The Originality ProblemWriter's Web
(printable version here)

One of the most common concerns for a writer in the Classics is the perceived inability to be able to create anything that is fresh, new, or original. This fear can haunt writers paper after paper. They ask themselves unanswerable and unfair questions: "Can I ever do enough research to know that this is new? How do I know that there isn't some 50 year-old article written in German about this exact same topic?"

Though it seems impossible, you can conquer this fear of the impossible demands of originality. The first step is recognizing the facts of the matter: you have chosen a class (or a major) in which the source material has literally been around for millennia. There is no way to change this fact; you must instead change your attitude toward the problem.

The second step is realizing that Classics professors are aware of the constraints of originality and would urge their students not to worry about them. Professor Walt Stevenson even questions whether originality is truly that important, saying that the purpose of writing a paper is to "discipline your mind to focus thoughts" and "to harness evidence." Professor Dean Simpson agrees, saying that originality and conclusiveness should not necessarily be at the forefront of a writer's mind. He maintains that, in academic writing, it is assumed that there is never a final word--because the discussion will always be open to fresh eyes and new thinking--and thus "analysis and fairness to the text in the process is what we're after," more so than some imaginary standard of originality.

However, a writer still paralyzed by the need for originality may find some solace in these Dos and Don'ts from the Classics professors. These are guidelines, and they are certainly not the only way to go about writing a paper or choosing a topic. They are simply suggestions to get the creative juices flowing.

  • DO create a pre-text for your paper and your argument in the introduction. This pre-text should clearly establish an interesting question or position for your reader to follow through the paper. For example:
    • Move from what the text appears to be to what it is.
    • Ask if past interpretations still live up to scholarly materials and sources today.
  • DO associate your research with your personal interests.
    • As Michael Barsanti of the University of Pennsylvania says, you have a "unique set of experiences and interests--those interests will lead you to notice things in the texts that no one else will."
  • DO critique an article or book you've read.
    • Your thoughts while reading will be your own and therefore rather likely to be "original."
  • DON'T be afraid to disagree with what you read.
    • Even though an article is written by a respected scholar and/or published in a well-known journal, if you find a point you disagree with and have evidence to support your position, go for it!
  • DON'T claim something bizarre that is not in the text just for the sake of originality.
    • Barsanti agrees again, saying, "You have to pay attention to a text in order to say anything original about it." You may be tempted to psychoanalyze a poet or spin a complete fiction of his life based on a single word, but the truth of the text a) will betray you and b) is almost always more interesting.

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