Over the next few months, Poynter will publish shortened versions of 21 chapters of the book “Help! for Writers,” by Roy Peter Clark. Published by Little, Brown, the book lists common problems writers face and offers 10 solutions for each of the problems.
- Don’t worry about the occasional cliché.
I know writers who say they want to ban clichés from their own work and the work of others. Not only is the effort futile, it’s counterproductive. Not all clichés are created equal (is “created equal” a cliché?). Some, though recognizable, are picturesque and retain the ability to delight — at least in certain contexts. Two of my favorites are “the fleas come with the dog” and “whistling past the graveyard.”
- Recognize when you are using clichés in clusters.
Listen to Orwell: “When one watches some tired hack…repeating the familiar phrases…one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine.”
- Don’t be afraid to take a cliché and tweak it.
Dorothy Parker is patron saint of this technique. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” became “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” “One more drink and I’ll be under the table” became “One more drink and I’ll be under the host.” Such surprises snap the reader to attention.
- When tempted by a cliché, give yourself one minute to think of an alternative.
Write the cliché (“old hat”) on a piece of paper and list words or phrases that come close to the same meaning:
- That idea is too old.
- That new idea is not new.
- That idea is in cold storage.
- That idea is tired.
- Did you find that in an antique clothing store?
You need plenty of examples that do not work before you can hit the target. And if you can’t find anything better, there is always “old hat.”
- Beware of the “buzzword,” the instant cliché spun off by culture.
The language of business, writes Ruth Cullen in her lexicon “The Little Hiptionary,” “is a curious combination of bureaucratic jargon, ungrammatical posturing, and locker room lingo.” Cullen lists these examples: deliverables, crackberry, cube farm, granular, shifting paradigms, peeling the onion, bandwidth, and out of the loop. The writer can have fun disinfecting such language in the public interest. I heard four different people at Poynter in a single day use the word “bandwidth” as a metaphor for “workers” or “people.”
- Write down the cliché and begin to improvise off it.
White as snow. White as a sheet. White as New York snow. White as cocaine. White as a Klansman. Black as a Klansman’s heart. White as a thundercloud. Practice playing with these phrases: green as grass, brown as a berry, blue as the sky.
- Make sure you understand the origin of the cliché. It’s “toe the line,” not “tow the line.”
People think it’s “tow the line,” like pulling a heavy weight with a rope. But it’s “toe the line,” from old boxing rules requiring a struggling fighter to step up to a line drawn in the dirt, demonstrating his ability to continue battle. Is it “soft-peddle” or “soft-pedal?” Look it up.
- Conduct a Google search on your cliché. Perhaps it is not as overused as you think — or more overused.
All writers suffer, at one time or another, from what critic Harold Bloom described as “the anxiety of influence.” When I use a familiar phrase, I often find the need to track it down. If there are only few uses, I may have to attribute the “apt phrase” to someone else. If there are countless users, I won’t be plagiarizing, but I may be far short of the original language I seek.
- Be sensitive to clichés of language, but ever more so to clichés of vision, tired ways of seeing the world.
I learned this distinction from Donald Murray’s book “Writing to Deadline.” While clichés of language may be misdemeanors, clichés of vision are felonies, a failure to see the world in all its complexities. Among those stereotypes of vision, Murray includes: the victim is always innocent; bureaucrats are lazy; housewives hate being housewives; it’s lonely at the top; it’s boring in the suburbs.
- Cautiously avoid ideological sloganeering.
Our political discourse has devolved into a war of slogans from the left and the right, a form of propaganda that reduces complicated issues to simple messages designed to stir emotions rather than appeal to reason. On the most contentious issues, each side battles not just for ideas or policies, but for the language that will give them the high ground. Be alert to slogans and simple talking points like “build a wall,” or “rebuild the middle class,” or any phrase that is repeated so often that it become a substitute for thinking.