The Secret to Making Good Content

My friend Derek making good content

It’s the ultimate question for any creative endeavor: regardless of what it is you’re making, how do you make it good? Many people think there’s a checklist, a bag of tricks, and you just need to learn how to use a lathe or how to hold the violin bow just so or how to make an L-cut in Adobe Premiere — they are wrong. Of course you need to be able to execute your craft at a rudimentary level, but there is a far more fundamental and important question:

What is “good,” anyway?

To make good content, you have to have a sense yourself of what is “good” and what is “interesting”. In the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the sushi master Jiro says

In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but you need to develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food. If your sense of taste is lower than that of the customers, how will you impress them?
If your sense of taste is lower than that of the customers, how will you impress them?

Jiro may be talking about eating and making food — tuna and rice and tamagoyaki — but his words apply to every creative endeavor, period. First, you need taste. That is how you make good content.


Taste


You need to cultivate a strong and subtle sense of taste for what is good and what is bad. This is fundamental. Watch (or read or listen or visit galleries and museums or whatever) — consume good and bad, consume a variety, but you must always be aware of what you like, what you don’t like, and start having opinions. The second step is to study and observe and understand why some things are good and others not, but without taste to start with you have no hope of looking at your own work with a critical eye and making it better. You must be able to view your own work with a critical eye, even when other people look at it and think it’s fine; your eye needs to be more critical than that of your audience.

There are a gadjillion ways to make good content, and a bazillion ways to make bad content — no single ‘trick’ makes the difference between good and bad.
A “good” science video? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OydqR_7_DjI

In the case of my work (science videos) you could list plenty of reasons people like to watch them: maybe they help people understand things they never before understood, maybe they’re funny, maybe they’re silly and not too pompous, or cute, fast-paced, clear, etc. But ultimately, any and all of those attributes are just symptoms of me trying to make something I think is good. Different good science videos will have different attributes, maybe even conflicting attributes (they might be long instead of short, serious instead of silly, etc), and yet they will be good.

I think there are some commonalities shared by many good science videos: they stay true to the science they are trying to communicate, they have incredibly clear and amazing explanations or analogies, they’re fun to watch, are exciting or have an “aha” moment, they’re the sort of thing that you want to share and go tell all of your friends about! But even so, these are symptoms of videos made by people with good taste, they are not pre-requisites for good videos.

When asked about the particular merits of playing guitar, the mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile once said “don’t play the guitar, play music.” And he wasn’t bashing the guitar (he’s an accomplished guitar player as well). He was saying, in different words, the same thing as Jiro: art is not about your tools, it’s about what you do with them. And to do great things, you need great taste.