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Writing tips for kicking your personal clichés

March 13, 2018

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A dark and stormy night; Credit: Pixabay user PublicDomainPictures

You’ve heard more times than you could count not to use clichés, whether from a teacher or in the railing of some literary giant like George Orwell:

A newly-invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.

Those are classic clichés and you can tally them in your reading: not your grandfather’s or grandmother’s this or that, you had one job, badass, tipping point, and so on. The Washington Post has a list of hundreds commonly and frequently found in journalism.

There is also another type: the personal. We develop habits in writing. Worn mental paths can turn exposition into something predictable and dull. It takes effort to pull yourself out the rut and improve your work. Here are three areas to watch.

Words and phrases

There may be words and terms that have overstayed their welcome, as Orwell noted. Or you may have your own personal collection. Time to break things up.

Look for vocabulary that you frequently employ. Consider exactly what you want to say, both in a strict informational sense and the emotional subtext many words have. Then check a dictionary and thesaurus for potential alternatives (and not necessarily polysyllabic Latinates).

Don’t look for any substitute at hand and swap it in. But do consider what else you could or might have used. Some research and attention will help make your thinking more flexible and word choice less automatic.

Communication structure

I found myself recently in an online discussion about a problem a colleague had found with her writing. She frequently reverted to the form of a statement followed by a sentence that started with the word “but.” It became an habitual recitation of making one statement and then delivering a counter that was supposed to move the narrative along.

I’ve had the same problem in the past and, indeed, still have it and carefully watch how I develop material to avoid this structural cliché. Anything in narrative development can become a habit. The answer is to make yourself consciously write differently. Read more widely and see how other writers handle similar topics. Experiment and find new solutions to old problems.

Article structure

Some writers use the same type of lede repeatedly. I knew one business editor who wanted an anecdotal lede, a renewed reference to the company mentioned halfway through an article, and then a close that looped back to the opening in every single piece. Such repetition numbs your brain and puts readers to sleep.

Steadfastly refuse to use a formula like an automaton would. There may be reasons to embrace certain presentations of information. Make those reasons defend themselves. Consider on a regular basis how else you could approach your current topic. Conduct a one-person post mortem on previous articles and see what other choices you could have made.

Although the activities may seem like a time sink, planning in virtually any endeavor more than pays for itself. As you become used to actively considering word choice, expository structure, and overall presentation, your writing will gain power and strength.


  • Erik Sherman

    Erik is an independent journalist and author who primarily covers business, economics, finance, technology, politics, and legal/regulatory, while elegantly expressing the complex and often incorporating data analysis.

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