by Daphne Gray-Grant
My husband laughed when he saw one of my writing magazines arrive in the mail recently. In 72-point the cover headline screamed: "104 Worst Clichés." Cosmo Magazine may lure readers with come-ons like “He cheated: Do You Take Him Back or Dump Him?” But writing magazines know that nothing sells like the threat of being boring.
The list of clichés, which was intended for fiction writers, included the following -- anything that sheds light; anybody who is stopped in his tracks; any heart, ocean, fist or headache that pounds. I agreed with all of them. But the list gave me another idea.
Each week I receive more than a dozen email newsletters. So I challenged myself to set a timer and go through a batch to see how many clichés I could find.
I surprised myself by finding 12 cliches in three newsletters, in less than five minutes. Here's what I turned up.
1) A real eye-opener: The word "real" is just the first problem. Would you ever have a pretend or fake eye-opener? Apart from that difficulty, this tired noun-phrase makes me want to yawn -- the very opposite of the writer's intent.
2) I have saved myself countless time, energy, and money. The word "countless" is part of what spoils this. First, it's the wrong modifier (you want "endless" time) but second, it's mindless. I don't believe it for a moment. Truth is always specific. How and why did you save the time, energy and money? Give me more detail and maybe I'll believe you.
3) Has never been this easy. Another over-generalization. Be wary of phrases that linger at the extremities -- the best, the worst, the fastest, the easiest. Superlatives smack of sales jargon, not genuine writing.
4) No reinventing of the wheel is required. Yes, and the last time I heard that one, I fell off my dinosaur.
5) A nearly endless set of possibilities. Another overstatement that makes me disinclined to believe everything else the writer has to say. And the tacked on word "nearly" is a cheesy qualification.
6) First and foremost. You don't want salt without pepper or Laurel without Hardy. But what's wrong with just "first"?
7) Point them in the right direction. True, a devious person might want to point you in the wrong direction, but what's wrong with just directing someone?
8) Want to learn the ropes. Shiver me timbers! Given that most of us drive to work, have lattes made for us by Starbucks and regularly eat take-out, it doesn't seem overly likely that learning how to tie a rolling hitch knot is high on our list of relevant metaphors.
9) Get their feet wet. I live in rainy Vancouver and getting my feet wet is something I do nearly every day -- and I don't welcome it. This metaphor deserves retirement.
10) A valuable commodity. This is not only tired, it's also nonsensical. By definition, a commodity is something not defined by quality -- 2x4 lumber, for example. Also, the phrase produces no visual image in the reader's mind -- and it takes eight syllables. A terrible waste of type.
11) Those precious few. All people are precious to someone. I believe this line came originally from a poem, and when it was first written it was fresh. Alas, no longer.
12) Level the playing field. I live in a house with a cracked foundation, so believe me, I appreciate anything that's remotely level. But this metaphor lost its oomph about a century ago.
Let me emphasize that these clichés do not come from bad newsletters. In fact, most of them are from newsletters I'd generally rate as good to excellent. But just as bad things can happen to good people (sorry, that's hackneyed), clichés can happen to good writers. I perpetrate clichés too. We all do.
Because here's the thing about clichés -- they're sneaky. We stop seeing them -- just as we stop seeing the cracks in the bathroom sink and the chipped paint on the kitchen walls.
The next time you edit your own writing do one read-through looking just for clichés -- nothing else. Read each sentence slowly, asking yourself: are any of these words too predictable? Is this image fresh? Have I slipped into jargon or reflexive and mindless writing?
You may be surprised by what you find.
(Thanks to Lynley Stace for the illustration.)
A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8 1⁄2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. It's brief. It's smart. And it's free.