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Copywriting Tip #13

Make your sentences pack a punch.
Don’t write -
“Give us a call to find out more”
Swap it round -
“To find out more, give us a call”

 

Avoid cliches like the plague

Date: 
Monday, February 6, 2017

Don't you hate cliches?

I do.  I reckon we all do - well, at least those of us who care about using language to communicate clearly and effectively.

First off, clichés are boring.  In fact, they're so boring, that when I come across more than two or three in one piece of text, my knees ache.  But what upsets me about clichés more than anything else is that they’re a symptom of my other pet hate - laziness.

 

When you really love something, like I love words, it’s painful to witness them being abused – especially when it takes so little effort to bring them to life and to get them performing at their best.

Here’s a dictionary definition -

northampton copywriter

There are thousands of expressions and phrases in English that we consider to be clichés.  The life of a cliché is a sad life.  No little phrase deliberately sets out to be one.   Each is a victim of its own success. 

It starts life as a brand new, bright-eyed member of our beloved language family.  We’re grateful for its freshness, its innovation, its new and clever take on what we want to say.

You’d never accuse Shakespeare of peddling clichés but we still swerve to avoid expressions such as “When all is said and done”, “All’s well that ends well.” And “As good luck would have it.”

 

It’s the same with more recent examples.  Whoever first said, “We have to think outside the box” was a clever chap.  This is, after all, a neat way of saying, “We should take an original approach.”

That these expressions become clichés is our fault.  In our desire to be ‘on trend’, we over-use them and, in no time, our clever new phrases become tired, predictable and hackneyed.

 

So what’s the answer?

How are we to write effectively, be original and yet avoid the dreaded cliché?  Should we be inventing new clichés of our own?  No – it’s much simpler than that.  A lot simpler.

Our first job is to spot the cliché.  Let’s say we’re working on our blog or our sales letter and we find we’ve written a phrase that we’ve heard many times before that seems to trip off the tongue a little too easily, the chances are - it’s a cliché.

All we have to do is to think very carefully about what we’re trying to say in simple English and then … just say it.

Take a look at this table of examples -

 

Cliche

Real Meaning

New version

In this day and age, an effective website is one of the most significant elements of an organisation's branding.

nowadays, today, these days

Today, an effective website is one of the most significant elements of an organisation's branding.

His first job in the industry turned out to be a baptism of fire (or a steep learning curve)

a difficult introduction

His first job in the industry turned out to be a difficult introduction.

The long-term prospects for the business are looking fairly bleak at this moment in time.

currently

The long-term prospects for the business are currently looking fairly bleak.

At the end of the day, it is the Managing Director himself who has to decide.

ultimately

Ultimately, it is the Managing Director himself who has to decide.

The Olympic Committee announced that they would not tolerate drugs in any way, shape, or form.

under any circumstances

The Olympic Committee announced that they would not tolerate drugs under any circumstances

Those were the days when detention without trial was par for the course.

the norm

Those were the days when detention without trial was the norm.

Education services in the city’s schools are not fit for purpose.

don't meet the required standards

Education services in the city’s schools don't meet the required standards.

The directors believe that this requirement is, to all intents and purposes, impossible to achieve.

in effect

The directors believe that this requirement is, in effect, impossible to achieve.

With difficulties looming within his own party, the president took the path of least resistance.

the easiest course of action

With difficulties looming within his own party, the president took the easiest course of actio

 

See how, by writing plainly, clearly and concisely, we come across as authentic and we communicate our message effectively.

And that, my friends, is surely what good writing is all about.

But just before we part company, here's a topical treat - a poem by Eve Merriam and it's called ...

 

Cliche

 

A cliché
is what we all say
when we’re too lazy
to find another way
and so we say

 

warm as toast,
quiet as a mouse,
slow as molasses,
quick as a wink.

Think.
Is toast the warmest thing you know?
Think again, it might not be so.
Think again: it might even be snow!
Soft as lamb’s wool, fleecy snow,
a lacy shawl of new-fallen snow.

 

Listen to that mouse go
scuttling and clawing,
nibbling and pawing.
A mouse can speak
if only a squeak.

 

Is a mouse the quietest thing you know?
Think again, it might not be so.
Think again: it might be a shadow.
Quiet as a shadow,
quiet as growing grass,
quiet as a pillow,
or a looking glass.

 

Slow as molasses,
quick as a wink.

Before you say so,
take time to think.
Slow as time passes
when you’re sad and alone;
quick as an hour can go
happily on your own.

 

And you know what comes next.  Of course you do!
Tell me, in the comments section below, the cliche which, more than any other, drives you up the wall.

So - who's going to be the first to gleefully email me, admonishing my use of this old cliche "drives me up the wall"?
I tried substituting "infuriates me", but it didn't have the impact of the despised cliche.
So - let's agree that there are times when no other phrase will quite manage the job as concisely and efficiently as the cliche that we are trying to avoid.
Perhaps, 'drives me up the wall' deserves a formal accolade, a badge of honour, reserved for cliches that have properly earned the right to a permanent respected place in our lexicon.

Comments

Great article - and I love the poem, too.

Funny Suzan - I was thinking of you when I posted it.

Oh where to start..? How about the increasing tendency to say "In fairness.." wherever it can be made to fit? In fairness, some people seems to start every sentence with it. Or they'll throw it in at the end, in all fairness. Perhaps it indicates that most British of tendencies: The desire to be seen to be fair or maybe it's the fear of being seen to be unfair. More likely. Very un-British, being unfair. I don't hear Donald Trump saying it very much. Not that I'm holding him up as a paragon of virtue (cliché) to be fair... G

Without excusing myself, clichés are like jargon, they become so familiar that we use them without realising. Thank goodness we have the language police in the form of you copywriters to kick us into line.

An enjoyable and worthwhile read, as always Stephen. I find the overuse of the terms "landmark building", "iconic building" and "gateway" have become clichés due to their popularity when describing what new buildings or collections of them are predicted to become. I fear that "iconic landmark building" may appear sometime soon unless it already has?

Hi Robert - yes, agreed on all fronts. As for 'Gateway' - so over-used. It must have been about 25 years ago that the first service station on the M1, that had been known by the charmingly earthy name, Scratchwood, was re-christened Gateway. How anodyne. How dull.

Jacky - pity the poor copywriter! We get called "grammar police/nerds/nannies/Nazis". Bless us - all we're trying to do is the help out the barely-literate business community :-)

Stevie when does a metaphor become a cliche. At the end on the day is it those phrases that catch on early doors and become widely used and popular.

Hi Stewart - I guess anything becomes a cliche once it becomes thoughtlessly over-used. In the case of a metaphor from the world of football, "Ian Sampson was a lion at the heart of the defence." Would you agree?

'Blue sky thinking' makes me see red. One stale cliche deserves another.

So clever Miles :-)

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