Though there are no hard and fast rules concerning how much you should explore the significance, you should at least take your observations beyond the obvious and cliché. Sometimes clichés don’t make any sense at all; we just repeat them ourselves because we hear others constantly utter them. When I was a child, anytime I would complain that something isn’t fair, my parents would often respond with the cliché “life isn’t fair.” Though I often repeated the phrase myself (especially when I started teaching), I have since decided that it doesn’t really make any sense. “Life” is too big to be broadly characterized as “fair” or “unfair”; instead we all experience countless moments of both justice and injustice. And even if life isn’t fair, that’s no reason for us to act unjustly. We may not have the ability to fix all the seemingly random sufferings that come with living, but we can at least strive to behave in a reasonable manner ourselves.
Other times, clichés become clichés because they are often true, but this does not mean that they are always true for all occasions. In fact, for every cliché you can come up with, you can find another that has the opposite meaning. “Absence can make the heart grow fonder,” but often loved ones who are “out of sight are out of mind.” “Good things may come to those who wait,” but “it’s the early bird that gets the worm.” “The grass may be greener on the other side,” but, as Dorothy reminds us, “there’s no place like home.” And not only can clichés seem contradictory, but also suggest a person’s desire not to think. For instance, if you were having problems with a long distance relationship and asked your roommates for advice, you probably would not want them to simply reply “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Such a response would imply that they didn’t care enough about you to take into account the specific concerns of your particular situation. Likewise, readers often feel the same way when a cliché substitutes for more detailed significance.
Along with a tendency to overuse clichés, the other factor that prevents writers from thinking very deeply about the implications of their subject occurs when they rely too much on those statements of classification and taste discussed in the previous chapter. When exploring the significance, try not to simply label your subject as “ironic,” or “absurd,” and leave it at that, but also consider why it matters that we see it this way. For instance, you could discuss how certain aspects remind you of an absurdity in your own life that needs correcting. In short, try to move beyond simply showing that you understand the surface meaning of these terms to fully exploring the wider insights that they helped you to discover. If you only rely on a cliché or broad declarative statement, the significance of your essay may disappoint your reader like an unsatisfying punch line to a joke that took forever to set up.
One way to move beyond simple declarative statements or clichés is to brainstorm on what you already know about the significance of your focus.“Brainstorming” or “listing” is a widely used heuristic in which you quickly write down all the thoughts and associations that you have on a subject to see where the ideas may lead you. To give your mind free reign, you should not pause to censor any of the ideas because sometimes the ones that seem the most bizarre initially can lead to your most profound insights. Consider, for instance, the following brainstorm on the nature and implications of advertisements for laptops:
After doing this for several minutes, you should then look over your jottings to see if any patterns appear. For instance, from my notes above you can see how these commercials might let students think that laptops make it easy for them to look intellectual and do their work in bits and pieces. In addition, this implies that they can use this one product to manage the “lighter side” of their lives—social interactions and relaxation (reading, watching movies).
For those of you who tend to think in concepts before considering the concrete details, you might try clustering (sometimes referred to as “looping” or “a spider diagram”), a variation of brainstorming in which you move in the opposite direction, from categories to specific instances (and, again, list everything that comes to mind without censorship). In this version, you first write down the main topic you wish to examine in the middle of a piece of paper, surround this topic with the major issues and concerns that come to mind when you think of it, and then surround these issues with the concrete details that they consist of. For instance a cluster around the topic of commercials for laptops might look like this:
Notice that while the layout is different, the considerations appear similar to the ones that emerged while brainstorming. It doesn’t really matter which form you use or how you use it, as long as it sparks new insights.
After taking time out to explore the significance, you can then return to your analysis to integrate your new insights about the broader implications of your piece:
There’s little doubt that laptop advertisements work—or companies wouldn’t continue to use these same tired plots. Typically we see a group of “with it” people— young students at a desk, on the grass or at a coffee shop; well-groomed professionals having success at a business meeting; young children looking at movies or educational learning programs. The laptops may be coordinated to their style or type of clothing (for instance, black or gray for a businessman; red for a college student; pink for a little girl). While people may like what they “see”, the ads don’t necessarily focus on what a laptop really helps you do—preparing work, researching and rewriting presentations or conducting appropriate due diligence on research findings. This same focus on style over substance permeates much of our culture, from politicians who say that they are against government spending while increasing their personal salaries and staff to the students who paste “Go Green” bumper stickers to their unnecessarily large, gas guzzling cars.
The paragraph is much more intriguing than it would be if you tried to sum up the significance too quickly by relying on a cliché: "Buyer Beware." If you think carefully about both the piece and the issues it raises before writing about it more formally, you will develop a much more satisfying discussion of its significance.