Hemingway once said what the writer needs is a “built-in shit detector.” I’d add a built-in cliché finder.
Clichés are a haven on deadline. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t do a cliché-check as well as a spellcheck. But the best time to battle clichés is off deadline.
I read a business story that said a computer company was trying to win “the hearts and minds” of consumers. If the writer had said, “hearts, minds and modems,” what a difference it would have made.
When the urge strikes to write using clichés, check yourself against one of the following resources:
Joe Grimm of the Detroit Free Press has a page loaded with good advice on avoiding clichés, plus links to a cliché finder and a list of words so overused they should be banned.
- The Dictionary of Clichés includes not only a list of clichés, but also information about their origins.
- The gold standard for writing free of clutter, jargon, and mixed metaphors is William Zinnser’s classic, On Writing Well.
When you are not on deadline, try the following exercise. Gather other writers and have everybody bring in a couple of their stories. Pass them around and go on a cliché hunt (Sometimes you can’t spot your own. I used to tell editors, “But I’ve never used it before!” They were never sympathetic.). Put them up on the chart pad and then brainstorm ways to transform them from public domain to private stock.
Finally, keep in mind the following words of wisdom from the late editing teacher, John Bremner:
“Speech is often riddled with clichés because people speak faster than they think and because they speak in phrases rather than in words. They have picked up the phrases over the years and don’t stop to think what the words mean. At their creation, the phrases were original and bright. Down the years, they have become worn-out by use. What we need are new clichés.
There is less excuse for clichés in writing than in speech. A writer has more time to seek the right word, to avoid triteness. If, however, he decides that a cliché is the best way to convey his meaning he should go ahead and use it. He should not apologize for using it by adding a patronizing phrase such as “if you’ll pardon the expression,” “to coin a phrase,” or “as the old saying goes.”
— Poynter.org reporter Ellen Sung contributed to this tipsheet.