Nietzche once wrote that certain kinds of metaphors are worn out, like “coins which lose their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.”
Clichés work in the same way. They are colorless maxims that cause the reader to turn off their mind as soon as they see them. Phrases like “read between the lines,” “they lived happily ever after,” and “white people can’t jump.” They’re banal and every writer knows to avoid them. But cliché ideas are rarely discussed, even though they’re a worse offense.
Cliché ideas are doomed from the start. They are trite because they align with conventional wisdom and the reader’s worldview, either because the topic is too broad or common knowledge.
If you want to avoid clichés, don’t write from a 10,000-foot view. It’s like Google Maps, which isn’t relevant for daily life until you zoom in enough to see the roads and highways you need to reach your destination. Remember that metaphor whenever you brainstorm. Avoid high-level topics like “How the Internet is Transforming Society.” They’re fun to ponder but rarely detailed enough to be insightful. Look for second and third-order effects instead. In my own writing, the exercise has led me to “Audience-First Products,” “Naked Brands,” and “People-Driven Learning.” The more you investigate the details, the easier it will be to avoid clichés.
Clichéd ideas are so obvious that you can’t possibly make the opposite argument. As cheap, copycat tricks, they put people to sleep faster than golf on television. Everybody knows that Amazon has been a good investment for the past five years and that the Internet plays a major factor in the rise of eCommerce. No shit, Sherlock.
Avoid cliché ideas by writing about a familiar subject from a new angle. That’s what Tim Urban did so well in a post called Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, where he avoids standard methods of explaining procrastination by creating characters like the Instant Gratification Monkey and the Panic Monster. The ideas aren’t really new, but his humor makes the ideas come alive. You can also inject your ideas with life through personal stories. If it’s captivating enough, you can get away with a clichéd narrative arc. That’s why we watch romantic comedies even though we know the couple will eventually live happily ever after, and it’s also why 24 was my favorite TV show even though I knew Jack Bauer would save the world.
Or, you can eliminate clichés by escaping the spotlight. Rather than writing about how Starbucks is a dominant coffee chain, focus on under-explored topics like how customers provide them with free debt or why they incentivize customers to purchase simpler drinks in the morning and complicated ones in the afternoon.
Clichés are ideas without surprise, where readers can predict what the author’s going to say just by looking at the title. But insightful ideas are always jarring. By comforting the confused and confusing the comforted, they shock the reader out of an intellectual slumber. So next time you sit down at your computer, avoid clichéd ideas by zooming into a topic or adding a twist to a familiar subject.
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