This is a little drum I have beaten in one form or another before: Whence Inspiration for instance, and also How To Art, but my thinking has evolved a little, as it does.
All this business of sterile pictures about nothing is really about pictures that don't have an Idea (in the sense of the How To Art piece).
A concept, an idea, something to be conveyed. That is literally the entire point of any kind of Art with a capital A, as well as lots of other genres of photography (fashion, journalism, at least). Without an idea you're just doing exercises, or possibly making decor. I've made a lot of decor in my time, and at the time it seemed OK. It doesn't any more.
So, for me, at this moment in time, pre-visualization is almost entirely about the Idea, the concept. What am I trying to convey here, with this photograph which I am shooting right now? And, how can I accomplish that?
This pushes you past the point of simply copying things. You might copy something, but for a purpose. You might absolutely lift a method, a juxtaposition, a style. Absolutely. You almost certainly will. But it won't be merely to copy someone else's picture. You won't be making fake Ansel Adams pictures, you'll be making your own pictures using his methods. You might be saying essentially the same thing as Adams was, and that's OK.
Tell my how awesome, how sublime, that mountain is, that tree is, that river. But you tell me that. Don't just ape Ansel Adams because his photoz are teh awezome.
The point is that you're saying your own thing, using the toolbox of methods we all share.