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That Is So Cliche

Posted on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 1:11 PM

Clichés can make writing "as dull as dishwater."

As an editor, you probably see clichés often. Even the best writers use them, and in some instances, they can be effective. Sometimes, when an article needs some personality, writers turn to similes, metaphors, and idioms for emphasis. Not a bad idea. It is when writing becomes loaded with superfluous imagery and needless abstraction that it loses all effectiveness.

Here are a few clichés from SuspenseNet's extensive list:

--beyond the pale
--cut the mustard (some consider this to be an incorrect rendering of "cut the muster")
--stranger than fiction
--reign supreme
--last-ditch effort
--experts agree
--garbage in, garbage out
--goes without saying
--law of the land
--know the ropes

It is probably best to review this list, and others, to familiarize yourself with the most commonly used clich├ęs. Let them stick out to you like the sore thumbs they often are. In most cases, they can be revised out of a sentence without mangling the meaning.

Consider the following passage:

Because Jessica knows the ropes better than anyone in the office, it goes without saying that she will get the promotion tomorrow. Leslie has made a last-ditch effort to prove that she cuts the mustard, but it is too little, too late.

Here, we have a whopping five clichés (set in italicds). The passage is loaded with idiomatic abstraction. How can we make it not only less cliché, but clearer? Let's try some revision:

Because Jessica works more efficiently than her coworkers, she will likely get the promotion tomorrow. Leslie has taken on some extra projects this week to prove herself, but her efforts are too little, too late.

Notice that we have let the last cliché stand. It works here. "Too little, too late" tells us that Leslie's efforts are not only insufficient to win her the promotion, but also not in time to sway her boss' decision. We have made this concept clear with just four words.

Even if you don't have a list of common clichés memorized, you can likely pick out these culprits in a lineup. Look for overused similes ("like two peas in a pod," "as stubborn as a mule," etc.) and idioms that complicate things needlessly.

You don't need to strike all clichés from existence -- as seen above, they can be useful. Earlier this year, Randy Michaels of Tribune Company banned 119 clichés from his newsroom and encouraged employees to keep tabs on one another with bingo cards. No need to be that vigilant. Just make sure to present copy that is low on fog and high on clarity. Don't let an otherwise informative article become "cheesy" thanks to excessive use of clichés.

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