Writing Corner

A thread on writing and issues related to writing. Grammar Corner basically handled questions about writing, but it was technically more about grammar. Plus, that thread was getting long, so here’s a new thread. Here’s my first question How far should one go to avoid cliches–and I’m referring mainly to non-fiction writing, although I’d be interested in fiction writing as well. For example, I recently used “rearing its ugly head” or a I saw the phrase “den of thieves.” Ever time cliched phrase like that comes to mind when writing, how often should you avoid it, and come up with something else?

38 thoughts on “Writing Corner

  1. I’ve written an article on this topic, but I know you’re going to disagree with me. It’s okay. I stand by my opinion and am willing to hear yours. Here’s what I wrote.


    Metaphors Be with You: Avoiding Clichés

    Good writing is economical, but it is never cheap. This is why in professional writing we avoid clichés: they are cheap shortcuts to meaning. If our meaning is important, it’s important enough to express with our own words. Don’t pay anything forward or pay the piper. Don’t lay down the law or lie through your teeth. Don’t raise the stakes or rise from the ashes. Think outside the box by never asking anyone to think outside the box.

    Because a good metaphor can make your writing sing, you may sometimes yearn to use a cliché. In this case, find a way to make it your own. If it fits the tone of your message, describe someone as paying it sideways, or exploding from the ashes. Just don’t fall in love with any of these modifications, or they also become overused.

    Let’s all grab the bull by the horns where the rubber meets the road and just do it: avoid clichés like the plague.

    1. A few years ago, I shared with you, Grace, and Penny an article I wrote for my job. It had been edited some, by someone who’s not as good a writer as I am. But I was new, I was learning to work with my team, and I hadn’t yet earned any cred. I let the edit slide even though it contained a cliche, one I’ve cited in this article I’ve just shared.

      I asked you guys if you could spot the sentence I didn’t write and neither of you could do it. 🙁 It was a sentence containing the phrase “paid it forward.”

      1. I asked you guys if you could spot the sentence I didn’t write and neither of you could do it. 🙁 It was a sentence containing the phrase “paid it forward.”

        I don’t recall this. Did you also let us know that it had cliche?

        1. Yeah sorry. I got you guys confused with another group of friends. That email exchange happened with them. I’m sure you, Grace, and Penny are familiar enough with my passions to have spotted the offending cliche immediately. 🙂

  2. I know you’re going to disagree with me.

    Actually, I’m not sure about my position, and I’m still not sure based on your article, which I liked for the hip use of cliches. I kinda wish you expanded on this idea:

    If our meaning is important, it’s important enough to express with our own words.

    Do cliches really diminish meaning, and if so how? The weakness of a cliche seems to lie in their lack of power or impact, not clarify. Or do you disagree with that?

    My sense is that professional journalists, from reputable outlets, use these type of cliches all the time as well. If you can find examples of articles that avoid them completely let me know.

    1. They don’t exactly diminish meaning. If your goal is meaning, you could probably feel free to use cliches here and there, since as I said, they are shortcuts to meaning (as jargon or acronyms are shortcuts to meaning; useful, but context matters). So in this sense I agree, as long as the cliches have agreed-upon meaning.

      However, if you read overly cliche-ridden writing, you’re likely to find yourself tuning out. Or maybe not! I know I find myself tuning out, and in that sense, cliches can be barriers to meaning, since your audience isn’t reading as attentively.

      Perhaps this is unfair of me, but when someone writes (or speaks!) in too many cliches, I question the originality of the person’s thinking. Good writing in the absence of good thinking (generally) does not exist. And THAT’s where my recommendation comes in: if you want to write well learn to write without cliches. Because if something is well-written, it communicates good thinking. Agree?

      We must be reading different writers, because the writers I admire pretty much never use them. But as an experiment, I’ll keep a log for about a week of stuff I read and whether or not I spot any cliches. Most of the people I read regularly, I read because they are good writers.

    2. However, if you read overly cliche-ridden writing, you’re likely to find yourself tuning out. Or maybe not! I know I find myself tuning out, and in that sense, cliches can be barriers to meaning, since your audience isn’t reading as attentively.

      I don’t think my attention declines, but the writing may seem flat and not really sparkle. But my sense is that a few cliches won’t do that. It’s not clear to me how a complete elimination of cliches would be worth the effort.

      Perhaps this is unfair of me, but when someone writes (or speaks!) in too many cliches, I question the originality of the person’s thinking. Good writing in the absence of good thinking (generally) does not exist. And THAT’s where my recommendation comes in: if you want to write well learn to write without cliches. Because if something is well-written, it communicates good thinking. Agree?

      I agree that good writing are good thinking are closely related, but I’m skeptical that the use of cliches, to any degree, signifies a lack of good thinking. Cliches are short-cuts. Does good thinking exclude shortcuts? Do good thinkers always avoid shortcuts? That sounds wrong to me.

      Now, an overuse of cliches will lead to writing that lacks originality, at least in terms of the form, if not the content. This is basically by definition. To say such a person’s expression, in writing, is unoriginal seems fair. To go beyond that and claim they’re an unoriginal thinker seems to go too far, as originality can manifest itself in different ways.

      1. I guess what it comes down to for me is if you hold up two pieces of writing about the same topic, and one has (say) two cliches in it and one has zero, and they are otherwise pretty much identical, the one without the cliches is better. And if the choice comes down to quick but not as good or better but a little more effort, I’ll always go for better. Because if I’m going to write something someone else is going to read, I’d prefer it be a better piece of writing.

        And you know what? The more practice you have writing without them, the less time it takes to avoid them. I’m totally serious. And then you can spend some of that extra time throwing in some vibrant language.

      1. Man. I wish I’d used “…and give it the old college try” instead of “…and just do it” in my article. That phrase has always cracked me up. Maybe because for me, the old college try was hanging out in the game room, sleeping in my truck, and staying out way too late shooting pool instead of doing my assigned reading.

    3. I’ve been writing a few things, and while writing the cliches have come to mind, and I wish I remember the specifics, because I’d like to get some suggested alternatives. I’ll try to remember them the next time this happens and share them here. But while I’m here, MItchell, what would you use in place of something like “thinking outside of the box?” Let’s suppose the context is about an organization, and you’re talking about not only conventions to constrain employees.

      1. The first option is always just to write literally what you mean. Think creatively. Eschew convention. Be unbound by norms or tradition. Decide what you would do if there were no negative consequences.

        At a development writers’ conference a colleague went to, a speaker said, “Do something every day that could get you fired,” or something like that. Because I have supervisors I trust to rein in the craziness, I take this advice to heart. Plus, I decided when I was hired that I would never let fear of being fired influence my decision-making where it came to my actual duties. So maybe something along those lines.

        1. But what about a metaphor or wording to describe the process of thinking beyond convention? “Thinking of the box” is short, catchy, and clearly conveys the mean in a way could resonate with people.

          1. Then you’re coming up with your own metaphor. I’ve used “color outside the lines” when I’ve had to, but I don’t use it anymore. Think of something similar but original. Something about connecting the dots? Or come up with a sports metaphor. As long as your audience will understand it.

            Oh, you’re asking me what I would use. As I said, I would start with my literal meaning. And if I needed a metaphor, I would think of something relatable and meaningful to my audience. If it’s work people, think of something work-related?

            For a general audience, maybe something like “play in the street” or “fly above the canopy” or “swing from different trees” or “go up the down escalator?” It depends on all sorts of things, like the tone of your piece and who’s going to read it and why.

            But let me say that if you have to think too hard to come up with a metaphor, the metaphor is probably forced and therefore not very good.

          2. But let me say that if you have to think too hard to come up with a metaphor, the metaphor is probably forced and therefore not very good.

            Right, and that’s what I’m feeling when I try to come up with alternatives. The alternatives don’t see very good, which makes me question the value of coming up with an alternative.

            My sense is that thinking of alternative metaphor–that is clear and impactful and not forced and silly–is really difficult. Have you done this? And if so, I’d love to hear some examples.

  3. I will also add that you especially don’t want to use this cliche. You really shouldn’t use a cliche to tell people to think differently, you know? It erases a certain credibility.

    1. That’s a valid point, but it’s hard to think of an alternative that doesn’t sound forced or awkward. It’s also not easy to think of a phrase that emphasizing the way people think and approach a problem. For example, “color outside the lines” doesn’t do that (and it’s kinda cliched, too).

      One alternative might be to just not come up with a metaphorical phrase that captures the concept, but then the writing may be less memorable and vivid and clunky to boot.

      1. There’s this site called Power Thesaurus. It’s crowdsourced, so it’s about as reliable as the Urban Dictionary.

        I’ve been meaning to explore what it would take to put up a similar site, but I just don’t have the time to think about it right now. I seldom get what I’m looking for when I consult it, but sometimes it gives me an idea of how to say something better. I was thinking of Apple’s Think Different campaign. Not a cliche and of questionable grammatical okayness, but memorable and simple. You don’t need a metaphor to be memorable or catchy. You just need to get it right.

    2. I was thinking of Apple’s Think Different campaign.

      You mean, as a replacement for “thinking outside of the box?” Using an existing slogan seems awkward, and maybe inappropriate. I’m not sure it clearly conveys the concept as well–i.e., that we have assumptions, current processes and rules…Maybe something like “question the rules” or something like that? I don’t know, that sounds kinda lame. “Challenge convention…” Meh, that’s not a metaphor.

    3. OK, got it.

      Here’s some thoughts on my attempt to find another metaphor for “thinking outside of the box:”

      1. The endeavor is difficult, and I’m wondering if finding another metaphor is worth it;

      2. This makes me think that you would recommend either a) using descriptions of the process, rather than metaphors or other figurative language that is cliched, or b) keep working at it;

      3. I think one of the virtues of a cliche like “think outside the box” is that the meaning is clear. Almost everyone will know what it means. It also concisely captures a way of thinking in a concise way. To write a description would be clunkier and perhaps not as clear and vivid.

      On a related note, I’ve been writing about the concept of balance in offensive football. I’ve found this to be a complex topic that is hard to describe. I’ve made progress, but I would make even more if I could find some metaphor that could be expressed in a few words like “think outside the box.”

      Now, suppose I found a really good metaphor. The notion that every person writing about this would have to find their own metaphor seems unreasonable to me, even if this metaphor actually becomes used a lot.

  4. My sense is that thinking of alternative metaphor–that is clear and impactful and not forced and silly–is really difficult. Have you done this? And if so, I’d love to hear some examples.

    It’s a lot more difficult to just recall examples than I would have guessed. But I was reviewing an email I sent to coworkers in our fantasy league, and saw this. It’s not brilliant but I use it once in a while to convey a sense of powerlessness in uncertainty.

    Doesn’t satisfy your “isn’t silly” criterion, but I’d only use it when silly isn’t uncalled for.


    What about COVID?

    Who knows? We’ll have to worry about that bridge as we get swept beneath it.

    1. This is a nice play on an existing cliche–which is a bit different, because you’re still using the cliche. Also, it’s not really describing an abstract concept like thinking unconventionally.

      Did you have any response to the point below?

      Now, suppose I found a really good metaphor. The notion that every person writing about this would have to find their own metaphor seems unreasonable to me, even if this metaphor actually becomes used a lot.

  5. I’m wondering if you guys can help with writing a sentence for the following idea. In my writing about offensive balance, one component involves the ability to run and pass from the same play/formations/personnel grouping. For example, imagine an offense lining up to the line of scrimmage. The offense could run or pass effectively from what you see there. A balanced offense utilize a lot of plays/formations like this. Do you guys know what I’m saying?

    If you do, I’m dissatisfied with the way I’m expressing it. To me, it’s not clear enough and the wording is kind of awkward, too. Part of the problem is that I don’t know what to call what the offense looks like when they line up. Calling it a formation isn’t right because different plays can be called out of the same formation. “Play” doesn’t seem correct, either, because the same play can be called out of different formations. At least I think this is correct. Same with personnel groupings. Is there one word I could use to describe what the offense looks like before the snap? Maybe formations and personnel groupings–because the plays would either be for running or passing?

  6. Here’s an example of using a cliche well. From here.

    There was, of course, an unmentioned alternative: conducting presidential business while practicing basic pandemic precautions, instead of dismissing and mocking them. But admitting this would involve the kind of critical self-reflection that Trump avoids like the plague. Actually, more than the plague.

    The writer (Michael Gerson) uses the cliche then adds a little PS. In this case, suuuuper appropriate. Well done.

    So to go back to your outside-the-box predicament, you could use the cliche but put a twist on it, or modify it. Think outside the box. Actually, think outside the case. It’s lame, but the idea is that boxes often come in cases, so you could make the point that you’re thinking outside outside the box, like off-off Broadway. Outside outside the box. Not much better, but you get my drift.

    1. Yeah, that’s a good one.

      But after trying your approach, and being a little more aware of when other writers use cliches, I’m starting to conclude that trying to completely eliminate the use of cliches isn’t worth it. “Thinking outside the box” might be a good example of this. Instead of making the language more alive and vivid, it seems to be awkward and even silly.

      I feel like certain situations warrant the extra effort to come up with fresher language, but it’s not clear how to determine when that’s the case.

        1. …which I say because communicating clearly is almost always worth the effort. Otherwise, why are you communicating?

    2. But cliches are clear. Indeed, I would think the more hackneyed a cliche, the clearer it would be. If clear communication is the primary goal, then cliches are often useful in my view.

      Here’s a suggestion. Instead of a eliminating cliches entirely, what if we were to judge cliches every time we encounter them. Sometimes they can hurt the writing. Other times they may be benign. Still other times, as in the example above, they can be exciting and fun.

      1. Like jargon, cliches are context-dependent. So if you know for sure your audience knows what you mean when you say, “It’s the bottom of the ninth,” then yes, your meaning might be clear. But for general audiences, I think it’s just clearer to write what you mean, because not everyone knows what “bottom of the ninth” implies.

        A mutual friend of ours once planned a week’s worth of activities for a bunch of teachers before the beginning of a school year. His theme was, “We got next.”

        For some of us, it was a great theme. For most (literally most) of us, not only didn’t it mean anything, but it was puzzlingly, grammatically nonsensical. And when he tried to explain it in front of the entire faculty, his explanation didn’t make sense because he explained it in terms of the phrase itself without ever explaining the phrase: “We’ve been waiting for this moment, we’ve been waiting for our turn, and now we got next” or something like that.

        When it comes to “think outside the box,” when I encounter it, I know what the person is asking but I question his or her sincerity, which adds a layer of noise to our communication. My biases are triggered, and I’m less likely to take the person seriously. It reminds me of an old stupid skit we used to do at Boy Scout Camp campfires, the Nonconformist’s Oath.

        MC: “Everyone please stand, raise your right hand, and repeat after me. I promise to be different!”

        Campers: “I promise to be different!”

        MC: “I promise to be unique!”

        Campers: “I promise to be unique!”

        MC: “I promise never to repeat what other people say!”

        When someone tells me to think outside the box, I think (a) the person clearly doesn’t know me, so who is he or she to tell me what to do? and (b) this person is telling me to do something he or she is unwilling to do. I’m suspicious (to say the least).

        I’m way ahead of you on judging every cliche we encounter. I’ve been doing it for decades. 🙂

        In fact, I mentioned somewhere up there ^^ that I would keep track of the general reading I did for a week, and note any cliche use, because I maintain that good writers stay away from them except in situations like the one I shared today.

        I went two weeks, actually, just because I kind of enjoyed it. I’ll dig it up and share it here later this evening.

        1. But for general audiences, I think it’s just clearer to write what you mean, because not everyone knows what “bottom of the ninth” implies.

          I know what you mean, but while there are some references that one knows only a niche audience would understand, others are less clear. For example, “bottom of the ninth” I think would apply to a general audience–especially if you know the audience is well-educated.

          His theme was, “We got next.”

          Is that a cliche? That seems more like slangy idiom. If the audience was of a younger age, I think that would be safe to use.

          When it comes to “think outside the box,” when I encounter it, I know what the person is asking but I question his or her sincerity, which adds a layer of noise to our communication. My biases are triggered, and I’m less likely to take the person seriously.

          Yeah, but do you think this is a common reaction or something largely specific to you? My sense is that most people don’t react this way to that cliche.

          I’m way ahead of you on judging every cliche we encounter. I’ve been doing it for decades.

          Just so that we’re on the same page, I meant that we should judge the use of cliches on a case by case basis versus assuming they’re almost always bad.

          When ministers in worship services say, “I challenge you to…”

          Is the problem here that the expression is a cliche (which isn’t clear to me), or that you’re offended by the minister challenging you (and the congregation) for a variety of reasons?

          1. I’ll get back to you on this stuff, but I just realized (as you probably have already realized) that we’re sorta talking about two different ideas here. Because sure, you can get away with certain practices in communication that work more often than they don’t.

            When people ask me questions like your original question, I assume they’re talking about good writing, not just writing that does the job, so it’s likely we’ll never come to an agreement about this. I aspire to Atlantic levels, which I may never attain, but which I think is worth the pursuit.

            Ugh. Now I’m getting depressed.

            I’m willing to concede this point, at least for now.

      2. You didn’t ask, but I thought of another one that makes me want to chew my fingers off my hand. When ministers in worship services say, “I challenge you to…”

        It’s a cliche, for one thing. You don’t have to spend much time in church before some preacher challenges you to something. And like most cliches, it’s cheap. It’s a personal call to action where there’s no personal connection. Is the preacher going to call me, and see if I’ve met the challenge? Does the preacher want to agree on any set of ground rules before a challenge commences?

        And who is the preacher to challenge me? I don’t know him or her, and he or she doesn’t know me (probably). Before issuing the challenge, has the person taken into account my history, my issues, where I am in life, and what my personal obstacles are? It’s infuriating because it’s fake confrontation.

        It would be less theatrical but more meaningful for the person to say something like, “I was challenged to…” and “This is what happened…” or “If you _______ I would like you to consider what _________ might do for your life, or your relationship with God.”

        In front of an audience, when a speaker says “I challenge you…” I almost automatically think to myself, “I refuse this challenge.”

  7. First, I think it’s important to note that this sub-thread started as a response this: “…communicating clearly is almost always worth the effort. Otherwise, why are you communicating?”

    My response: Hindering clear communication isn’t the problem with cliches. If clear communication is the point, the use of cliches shouldn’t be a problem.

    I do think good writing is worth the pursuit, although it depends on the context and situation. If I’m writing something that is close to a formal essay, then I think good writing is a worthy pursuit. For the writing that is more conversational, which is often the case on bulletin boards or social media, good writing is often not as important. Then again, the definition of good writing in those contexts can be quite different from good writing in a formal essay.

    By the way, why were you getting depressed? Was it because you didn’t think you could get to “Atlantic levels” of writing? If so, for what it’s worth, I think you could.

    1. Hindering clear communication isn’t the problem with cliches. If clear communication is the point, the use of cliches shouldn’t be a problem.

      We’re going to have to disagree on this, for reasons I’ve already stated. Don’t forget, there are three basic components to communciation: sender, message, receiver. The fourth major component (as I’ve taught it) is noise, which is anything that prevents a message from getting to its receiver as intended.

      Noise in communication is like friction in physics: it’s always present. As a frictionless surface does not exist, noiseless communication does not exist, and among components of noise are culture, bias, and the distractibility of the receiver.

      There’s a reason you asked the original question. If cliches weren’t an issue, there’d have been no reason to pose the question, either to people on VI or to yourself.

      But you sense (or you’ve heard) that there is an issue. You’re accepting that there’s a line, but where you draw it is not where I would draw it, and that’s fine. “The use of cliches shouldn’t be a problem,” but if this were true, I’m not sure we’d have had this conversation.

      For example, “bottom of the ninth” I think would apply to a general audience–especially if you know the audience is well-educated.

      I know a lot of well-educated people who don’t know that innings go from top to bottom. Well-educated readers will get a sense of your meaning based on context, but why use a cliche if your audience has to extrapolate meaning from it? That’s an added burden on the audience, and if you’re going to use a cliche, it should be a shortcut to meaning, not a barrier.

      Is that a cliche? That seems more like slangy idiom. If the audience was of a younger age, I think that would be safe to use.

      Perhaps, but I was using it as an illustration to make a point that for general audiences, it’s better to write what you mean. If you’re going to choose some kind of metaphor (which in choosing a theme for a week of prayer and focus is entirely appropriate), choose one that your audience understands. I assure you, the makeup of this group of teachers was not “of a younger age.” I was among the youngest there when we did this 20ish years ago.

      Yeah, but do you think this is a common reaction or something largely specific to you? My sense is that most people don’t react this way to that cliche.

      If we’re talking about what a writer can get away with when writing for the masses, of course you’re right. But why aspire to that? If your answer is because it’s not worth the extra effort it takes to write what you literally mean, I simply cannot agree. I think we should write for the very critical readers, and if there are no very critical readers in our audience, we’ve still accomplished stronger writing.

      Just so that we’re on the same page, I meant that we should judge the use of cliches on a case by case basis versus assuming they’re almost always bad.

      Yeah, that’s what I meant. I’m not sure where you’re sensing a disconnect.

      Is the problem here that the expression is a cliche (which isn’t clear to me), or that you’re offended by the minister challenging you (and the congregation) for a variety of reasons?

      It has become a cliche, which offends my sensibilities because it’s offensive in its lack of snincerity. And because the word of God deserves better than trite Christianese.

    2. Noise in communication is like friction in physics: it’s always present. As a frictionless surface does not exist, noiseless communication does not exist, and among components of noise are culture, bias, and the distractibility of the receiver.

      I want to be sure I understand what you’re saying here. Are you saying that cliches create, or can create friction, because some readers may not understand it (e.g., people who are unfamiliar with baseball may not understand “bottom of the ninth”)? If that’s what you mean, then I agree with you, but that problem is not specific to cliches. Non-cliched cultural references create, or can create, friction as well. Using high-falutin vocabulary can cause friction, too. To me, knowing your audience and calibrating your language to fit that audience is a general problem.

      To me, the main problem with cliches is that they can make writing dull and insipid, not that they can hinder communication–although that the latter can happen as well. Maybe I should have said this: “Hindering clear communication isn’t the main problem with cliches.” Does that clear things up?

      What you’re talking about is a general problem that involves determining the level of knowledge of your readers. When writing for a general audience I suspect this determination is even harder. (And how often do you write for a general audience? What is a general audience, anyway? I’d guess writing for a truly general audience is very rare.)

      If you’re going to choose some kind of metaphor (which in choosing a theme for a week of prayer and focus is entirely appropriate), choose one that your audience understands.

      I agree, but again, I think this is a general problem with communication, not specific to cliches.

      If we’re talking about what a writer can get away with when writing for the masses, of course you’re right.

      I don’t understand this response. If your response to “thinking outside of the box” is specific to your–i.e., highly idiosyncratic–then that suggests the problem has less to do with the cliche in my view. Here’s what I mean. Certain words, phrases, or even subject matter may trigger a response in readers that the writer can’t anticipate, and it would be unreasonable to except them to. A bird watcher may get offended by “killing two birds with one stone,” and that may cause friction. A writer should be sensitive to the way their language can cause unintentional reactions, but that’s far from a clear cut process, and, again, not specific to cliches.

      Yeah, that’s what I meant. I’m not sure where you’re sensing a disconnect.

      I was uncertain because initially you made a blanket statement about cliches–i.e., never use it. I wasn’t clear why you’d evaluate every cliche–i.e., determine when one is appropriate and to what degree–which is what I had in mind–when you believed they should never be used.

      It has become a cliche, which offends my sensibilities because it’s offensive in its lack of snincerity. And because the word of God deserves better than trite Christianese.

      OK. I would push back against the idea that the phrase itself lacks sincerity. I mean, I believe some ministers could use it and be sincere.

      I’d also push back on your last point about the word of God deserving better language than trite Christianese. For some people, using Christianese might be a sincere expression, and in those cases, while I might be annoyed by that, I wouldn’t say that’s unworthy or inappropriate for the word of God.

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