Cliché or how to fail at content creation

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Amid the chaos of possibility that is content creation, binding rules are hard to come by. Successful creatives have a hard time giving instruction to young artists, as the style they developed over their career is their own, and cannot simply be passed on to another. But there are two poles, two qualities that tend to mark out good and bad content, respectively. The first is the path to avoid — the path that, if pursued, will lend your content all the value and intrigue of a dishwasher instruction manual. This is cliché, and in the interest of escaping its clutches, picture a small, ruthlessly critical devil on your shoulder, pointing and laughing whenever you write, record or illustrate something drab and predictable. It will force you off the well-trod paths of convention into unexplored territory, areas in which you can create new things and carve a style of your own. With that said, unrelenting negativity is no way to approach creativity. On the opposite shoulder to the cliché devil is the authenticity angel, a quirky little creature that encourages experimentation, novel expression and an almost childlike willingness to try (and ultimately, at times, fail) at originality. Here are some ideas on how to use these two characters to develop your craft as a content creator.  

The cliché devil: not just old sayings and idioms

Wikipedia defines cliché as ‘an element of an artistic work, saying, or idea that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect’. The biggest clichés listed are sayings like ‘all that glitters isn’t gold’, ‘they all lived happily ever after’, ‘once upon a time’, but the principle of cliché goes far beyond these ancient, overused idioms. The French poet Gérard de Nerval captured this notion perfectly when he wrote, ‘The first man to compare a woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.’ All one does in regurgitating old clichés is pluck out someone else’s idea (someone long dead), wipe off the mud and showcase it anew, like stealing your dad’s old design for this year’s science fair. 

Cynics might blubber, ‘But just because someone else said it before, that doesn’t mean it’s not an original thought. How do you know it’s not a genuine idea that occurred to me that just so happens to have been expressed similarly before?’ I don’t. You may well mean what you say, you may well have a new, original idea behind the clichéd packaging. But you’re still a bad writer. If you have a new thought, it is your duty to find a new way to express it. If you don’t, you’ve just killed the thought, dispersed as it is within the vast, overused network of meaning that is clichéd language. 

For any idea you have, even the most rudimentary, finding new words is like weaving a new trail for your reader. The reader or listener doesn’t know what you’re thinking. Your thoughts could be endlessly profound, brimming with complexity and meaning and beauty, but it won’t be worth a whimper if you can’t find words to do them justice. We are novelty-seeking creatures, and the best way to hook the attention of your audience is by forging novel routes for them to follow. Like rats in a maze, they will find themselves squeaking, ‘Ooh, haven’t seen this before, have we? Could be new treasure awaits — onward!’ 

With all this vague postulation, here are a few concrete examples of less obvious clichés that nonetheless make for bland writing: 

— ‘think outside the box’

— ‘__ is a great way to’ (try ‘effective’, or something more specific’)

— ‘__ is all about’ (try ‘the crux of __ is’)

— ‘an innovative design’ 

— ‘tricky business’

— ‘world-class’

— ‘build your brand’

— ‘connect with your audience’

— ‘really interesting’ 

— ‘sums it all up’

— ‘hits the nail on the head’

— ‘tried and tested’

There are so many phrases like these, pitfalls that are all-too easy to step into. Dodging them requires constant attention and self-criticism. Of course, you will inevitably be using some of them, and that’s fine as long as they don’t make up the bulk of your writing. One or two here and there will not neuter your prose, but text that is packed full of them becomes lifeless. Don’t be afraid to use resources like thesauruses and synonym generators — they can’t do the work for you, but even switching the occasional word or phrase can inject flair into otherwise tepid writing.

The authenticity angel

All this venomous ranting is fine, and not without basis, but it is no recipe for a productive career as a creative. You have to keep your output high and your mentality keen if you want to progress as rapidly as possible. With that in mind, counterbalance a habit of self-criticism with a willingness to entertain bizarre, new ideas, explore a free-form style and experiment as much as possible without becoming bored and dejected. 

Granted, you don’t want to become so experimental that you never finish anything. Completing your work, whether it be an article, video or podcast is essential. Your brain wants to progress, to reach tangible goals and move forward. That way, it can pat its mushy, pink head and delight in a sense of accomplishment. But always keep authenticity in mind when creating. In the early stages, everyone copies their peers, as they have yet to distinguish their own style from the rest — try to sidestep this as much as possible by ignoring doubts and venturing into new territory. This can be done in an almost mathematical way, by taking a phrase or design and breaking it apart into components that you can then swap out and tinker with. As soon as you stumble upon a new configuration you like, explore that in greater depth. Keep tinkering, keep pulling apart and arranging disparate fragments, whether it’s two aesthetics that wouldn’t normally be put together, or a series of words that’s new and striking. 

Creativity is everywhere. Those who think it is confined to the purest of art forms, such as music, fiction and illustration, are sorely mistaken. Every company on the face of the earth that takes its image seriously is forced to think creatively, to design a brand or voice through which it communicates with customers. Ross Pike of web design agency Koreti Ltd comments, ‘Building a company’s website is not simply a matter of arranging some nice colours and fonts, slapping on some bog-standard copy and launching. The sites we build that truly excel are those that stand apart from the average competitor, that invite a second look, that are configured in a novel or exciting way.’ It will inevitably be a painstaking, at times solitary exercise, but in this world of media saturation, original content can and does capture the attention of thousands, acquiring large followings of devoted consumers. Individuals that achieve this are cherished by the population, and position themselves on the frontier of modern art and design. 

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