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Why clichés can be good for your writing

Clichés aren't always bad for writing

You know you shouldn’t use clichés, right? They’re the enemy of all writers, according to some experts, and using even one cliché will make you look lazy and unimaginative.

And you’ve sucked it in like water in a sponge.

You know you should avoid clichés like . . . well, no, not like the plague. We don’t have “plagues” anymore, so we don’t have a reason to avoid them.

You should avoid clichés at . . . no, not at all costs. Cliché avoidance just isn’t worth emptying your bank account or risking your life.

You should avoid clichés like your . . . no, your life doesn’t depend on it.

With rules like this one, it’s no wonder writers are such an insecure, anxiety-ridden lot.

The truth is, everyone uses clichés, even those who rant and rave about them.

They’re unavoidable. After all, what’s fresh today is moldy bread tomorrow.

Furthermore, the quality of your writing doesn’t hinge on whether or not you use a well-placed cliché or two. And if an entire article flops because of it? Well, guess what? That article has more problems than just clichés.

In fact, the entire language is a bunch of clichés, if you think about it. We use the same words and phrases over and over and over again, and whether one or the other is a cliché or not is a subjective judgment call.

So don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Understanding clichés helps you know when to use them or lose them.

A cliché is “a phrase or expression that has been used so often that it is no longer original or interesting,” according to Merriam-Webster.

They come in all shapes and sizes, and plenty should always be avoided.

Some are just trite and meaningless. Others show you haven’t given much thought to the topic, or you assume your reader hasn’t heard that one before. Worse, a cliché can reveal an ignorance of history and other areas of knowledge pertinent to your subject matter. Finally, clichés are often just mindless repetition.

So in many cases, sure. Get to the point, get down to business, and avoid those clichés.

Clichéd metaphors, similes, stereotypes, and idioms

Idioms are expressions that can’t be understood by their individual words. They’re tricky because they’re not to be taken literally.”Kicked the bucket” means someone died, for example, and “at the end of my rope” means someone has run out of options.

“That doesn’t cut the mustard” is an idiom that means something isn’t acceptable. It probably evolved from “doesn’t cut the muster” or “pass muster,” which refers to military inspection. It’s not well known, so it’s a cliché you’re probably better off avoiding.

“You gossip like an old woman” is a simile (a comparison that uses like or as) and a stereotype that needs to be retired. It’s not very nice, besides.

“That one put the last/final nail in my coffin.” This is a metaphor because it’s a comparison or analogy that doesn’t use like or as. And it’s a “dead metaphor” because we don’t generally have much to do with coffin nails anymore.

Clichéd proverbs, sayings, common arguments, quotes, business buzzwords, and catchphrases

  • Time is money: Benjamin Franklin
  • A bird in hand is worth two in the bush: various sources dating back to 13th century Latin and 6th century Egypt
  • Early to bed and early to rise: Benjamin Franklin
  • The lady doth protest too much: Shakespeare (No means no, right?)
  • Bam! That’s from comic books, of course, but celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse probably started the recent trend.
  • It’s all good (Um, maybe not. Read more here.)
  • Guns don’t kill people; people kill people (Thank you, Captain Obvious.)
  • Thank you, Captain Obvious (Will your readers get the reference?)
  • Back in the day: A phrase used by sad people between 45 and 60 looking back on better times. I might have that wrong, which is why you shouldn’t use it.
  • The tornado sounded like a “freight train”: Just don’t. Please. Just. Stop.
  • Open the kimono: A business buzzword. I recently saw a website’s sales page that claims the owner will “open the kimono and give it all to you.” Creepy. Definitely avoid that one. Some call it sexist and racist, too.
  • You’re overthinking it: I think this means “You’re way over my head, so just do what I say and shut up.” I hear it all the time, and it makes no sense.
  • All the time (above): That’s a cliché, though not as obvious as some others. It doesn’t really mean every minute of every day. I meant often. So I should say what I mean and mean what I say. Right?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to check out full lists of clichés or other opinions, here are a few resources.

681 Clichés to Avoid

The Most Annoying, Pretentious, and Useless Business Jargon

20 of Your Most Hated Clichés

In Defence of the Cliche

When should you avoid clichés?

Here’s when you should avoid clichés:

  • When they’re “dead” because they refer to old or archaic concepts
  • When the reference is too vague or uncommon to be useful
  • When they won’t make sense to most readers (if you’re a blogger, remember you probably have an international readership)
  • When they make no sense whatsoever (maybe I’m overthinking it)
  • When they illustrate a lack of knowledge. “Back in the old days [the world wasn’t so violent.]” The reader may think Sure it was. You just didn’t have the media reports we have today.

When should you use a cliché?

Consider using clichés when they make sense and aren’t easily misunderstood.

“The tip of the iceberg” (used above) isn’t so bad. In fact, it’s very descriptive and delivers a good image of how many other clichés exist in addition to those I’ve listed. And most people know that the majority of an iceberg is under water.

“As the crow flies” is another one that might be useful, especially to a travel writer. “The distance from New York to Los Angeles is 2448 miles or 3940 kilometers as the crow flies. However, the driving distance is 2791 miles or 4491 kilometers.”

And by the way, did you know that crows really fly in straight lines? They go back down to the ground to turn around if they want to fly in a different direction. How about them apples!

Use clichés when you want to be in sync with readers who use the same language style.

If you’re writing for average baby boomers, “back in the day” might be a good idea. But that depends on the demographics (I can’t picture stodgy professors or upper-crust socialites using it). 

“In this day and age” might be fine, too, if it gets your readers nodding along. But again, it’s about knowing your audience.

Expressions like “he’s totally chill” or “she’s so pressed for him” are idiomatic clichés. But if they’re expressions your readers use, and if they suit the type of writing you’re doing, go for it.

This applies to any other slang or lingo common to you and your readers; don’t be afraid to use it just because you heard somewhere that clichés are the devil’s doing.

Clichés can make a complex topic easier to understand.

If you’re writing about some new app for writers or a how-to for beginner Twitter users, keeping the writing simple and using familiar clichés can help your beginner-level readers feel at ease.

It’s easy as pie once you master the basics!

Will the cliché “easy as pie” really ruin a brilliant article and make you look like a beginner yourself? Um, no. You’re looking out for your readers.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a how-to on some aspect of WordPress, let’s say, for readers who proudly wear the title of tech-head, skip it. They don’t need the comfort.

What if you’re writing about prenatal nutrition for underweight moms-to-be? Will the cliché “remember, you’re eating for two” make or break the validity of your article? Hardly. In fact, you might make a difference for both an unborn child and an expectant mother (not to mention other family members).

Clichés can help characterize the writer

In a conversational blog post or personal essay in which you’re the star, include a few clichés that you typically use. What better way to provide a glimpse of who you really are?

Erika Napoletano is all about personality. And that includes clichés, like the cliché in the headline of this blog post: Hard Truths: There Will Always be THAT Asshole. “Hard truths,” of course, is the cliché. But I cannot for the life of me see the problem with that.

Penelope Trunk’s personality shines in her writing, too. An early blog post, “Living up to your potential is BS” features an abbreviated version of a cliché in the very first sentence:

“The idea that we somehow have a certain amount of potential that we must live up to is a complete crock.”

“Crock,” of course, is short for “crock of shit” which means false information. That’s Penelope. That’s how she writes. And she’s super successful.

Her occasional clichés (and her writing style in general) are why I like her. She speaks my language. If you tell me a writer should never use clichés, I’ll look you dead in the eye and shoot back, “That’s a total crock.” If I’m feeling generous, I might give you the whole kit and kaboodle: “That’s a total crock of shit.”

Here’s the moral of the story:

Be careful with clichés, but don’t get your panties in a wad over them.

Seriously, people. Don’t worry about them too much. The cliché naysayers are clichés themselves and fit right in with the grammar Nazis.

But choose clichés wisely. Be aware of how you talk and, by extension, how you write. Know when you’re using a cliché, and decide whether it adds to or detracts from your message.

And don’t be a worry wart, though I know it can creep up on you like a thief in the night. A little discernment and some careful choices are all the doctor ordered.

Your turn! Are you for or against clichés or somewhere in the middle? What clichés get on your last nerve? Comments are always welcome!

And if you found this article helpful, please share on Facebook and Twitter or wherever you hang out online.

Photo credit: Tom Newby
6 comments… add one
  • Leah, another winning article. And it was hilarious. Just proves that writing and grammar techniques don’t have to be painful to read. (And as an added bonus, nice to know that the New Yorker publishes short articles.)
    Congrats on the work you’re having published. May it continue…
    Best,
    Deena

    Reply
    • Thanks Deena! Glad you caught the humor, and you’re right. Writing and grammar doesn’t have to be all stuffy and serious. Even The New Yorker isn’t always so serious 🙂

      Reply
  • Forgot to add the cliché I hate the most: “She cried until she had no tears left.” Yuck.

    Reply
    • That’s definitely a cliché to avoid! Some authors even create their own clichés: repeated reference to “moisture” in her eyes or “moisture spilling over” was driving me batty in one long saga.

      Reply
  • Hi Leah,
    Haven’t heard from you in a while. Hope you are doing okay.

    Regards, Ali

    Reply
    • Hi Ali,

      Thanks for asking! Check your inbox soon for a blog post update. 🙂

      Reply

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