“There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it” – Dostoyevski, Diary of A Writer
“People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” – Samuel Johnson
Now and then I’m told what I wrote was obvious. Readers will say “I’ve heard it before” or “your book was excellent, but nothing new.” I’ve learned this is often, but not always, an empty critique. Here’s why:
1. Repeating a message is often necessary
We still haven’t learned to consistently practice the golden rule, follow the Ten Commandments, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, or most of civilizations basic laws and precepts. Being reminded of important ideas is necessary because:
- We forget
- It can take several times before we understand
- We need reminders to put ideas into practice
No one learns everything the first time. And even when learned, we sometimes lose our way and forget to follow perfectly good advice.
2. Rather than worry if something is obvious, ask better questions
There are many different ways to say the same basic message. But it’s those differences that make something funny, memorable, or moving. Simply rejecting something because it’s obvious (or more likely just familiar to you and your personal knowledge) denies you of the opportunity to experience those things. Instead, ask questions like:
- Is the writer making good points?
- Are the stories compelling?
- Is there an angle offered that’s helpful?
- Can I use what I’m learning?
- If there is a better single reference for this obvious thing, name it
Being obvious is certainly a mistake if none of the above apply, but otherwise there is value. As a writer, when I’m told a reader couldn’t apply what I wrote, or the stories didn’t relate to their lives, that’s more useful criticism. If they tell me of a better alternative, I can go read it and learn from it. But “that’s obvious” doesn’t on its own suggest I should have changed anything.
3. Sometimes being radically different means you are wrong.
A book on basic math will, at some point, explain that 2 + 2 = 4. Any writing that about universal themes (love, happiness, progress) will cover ground others have before. The better questions are:
- Does the writing provoke something useful?
- Does it motivate?
- Does it inspire?
- Is it convincing you to do something better for yourself or the world?
For example, I don’t believe radical new theories on creativity or public speaking, two areas of my expertise, are necessary. No theory will do the hard work or take the risks for you. This is perhaps my meta-theory about writing itself. It explains why I’m unlikely to write a book called “The radical new amazing theory on X”. I don’t believe such things exist for the interesting challenges in this world, and books that claim there is one focus more on novelty than utility. Even when popular, these books have little influence relative to their sales.
Artist Nina Paley said “Don’t be original; be obvious. When you state the obvious, you actually seem original… Likewise, the more specific the feelings, experiences, stories – the more universal they appear.”
4. If it’s old to you, it might be new to someone else
One of my favorite stories from Confessions of a Public Speaker is the often quoted study on how people are more afraid of speaking to a crowd than dying (read the excerpt here). Everyone’s heard this, and many believe it, but few knows the source. It was a thrill to dig up the actual research and show how empty it was. But I did have someone tell me, “I’d heard that debunking before Scott”, to which I wanted to reply “but what about the 99% of the population that hasn’t?”
In The Myths of Innovation, a similar thing happened with Newton and the apple. I was amazed to discover how unlikely the apple legend was. I’d been reading about invention and science my whole life and didn’t know. I figured even if more people than I realized knew about this, it was a stellar reference for making larger points about epiphany stories. Just because you might find a story obvious, doesn’t mean the larger point it’s being used to make isn’t important, meaningful or relevant.
Ideas can be both obvious and potent, and surprising and impotent.