C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

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Poor Writing Critique

Here’s an unhelpful answer when you ask for feedback: “That’s derivative.” Derivative is “it’s been done” dressed up in fancy clothes. That’s not useful information because everything has been done.

There are books that try to reduce everything to thirty plots or only ten. I can edit that down to two: Boy gets girl (with multiple variations) and good versus evil. It’s up to the writer to make it different enough within the familiar.

When someone says what you’ve written is derivative, what they really mean–and they might not know this–is that it’s boring. Maybe you’d prefer the encrypted signal after all, huh?

Recently some wag complained that Scrubs is derivative of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. If you don’t remember Parker Lewis you aren’t alone, but yes, it was a funny show that featured lots of quick fantasy sequences and non sequiturs. It’s ironic that the critic was saying Scrubs was derivative when it’s so clear that Parker was heavily influenced by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

 (Family Guy uses the same devices but nobody’s calling Family Guy derivative except some really bitter Simpsons fanatics.)

Scrubs isn’t derivative because (a) it has lasted longer and will be in syndication forever and (b) while both are comedies, Scrubs occasionally has more emotional depth. Parker Lewis Can’t Lose was a safe show to watch. It was right in the title! He couldn’t lose! In Scrubs, patients you like sometimes die and more than once the writers made me cry while I was laughing. That’s really hard to do in twenty-two minutes of what’s often a silly show.

Both shows use some of the same devices, but the stories and characters are plenty different. That’s not derivative. (Of course, Scrubs has moved around so much in broadcast times and even networks that I haven’t seen it for several seasons now. They lost me when they went to the January to June format to accommodate Zach Braff’s movie career.)

There are no new plots but there are plenty of characters and plot permutations and combinations to last us until the sun explodes. If someone tells you you’ve written something derivative, you can say:

“Tell me more.”

“Anything else?”


“You’re an ass hat.”


*Did you catch the subtext here? To talk about writing, we always use examples from popular TV shows and movies as a shortcut to mutual understanding. Yes, that’s writing, too, but isn’t it a bit sad that we don’t have enough common examples to draw from in books? I could blog for days on Fight Club, but since a bunch of you haven’t read it (still!) it’s not a common enough example to use as a currency on a writing site. Maybe you’ve all seen the movie. There are so many books and far fewer popular shows and movies, but in our culture what we watch interprets our world. We don’t have enough text in common, so go read something.

Filed under: Rant, Rejection, writing tips, ,

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