Avoiding clichés is harder than it sounds

Any writing expert will tell you: If you want to get your message across, avoid clichés. The problem is, no one seems to know what, exactly, a cliché is. Is it an overused sentence like “The grass is always greener on the other side”? Is it a two-dimensional rendering like a mobster who wears a fedora or a private investigator who keeps a liquor bottle in his desk? Is it any needless phrase like “It is important to note that”? Can it be a single word, like “synergies”?

The answer isn’t clear, but the lesson is: If your words or descriptions are so overused that they’ve lost their impact, you should look for ways to rephrase them. Sometimes you won’t find a better alternative because that’s the nature of clichés: They get overused because they capture an idea or image exceptionally well. But if you make an effort to replace clichés, sometimes you’ll find a fresh new way of saying something that actually has an impact on your reader.

Every writing genre has its own clichés: fiction, journalism, marketing, business communications. So every list of clichés is different based on the list-maker’s own observations. My recent column looks at the following clichéd words and expressions: first and foremost, burst into tears, sweat profusely, bleed profusely, it’s a win-win, underscores our commitment, a perfect storm, think outside the box, decadent desserts, pop of color, break into a cold sweat, a bucolic setting. 

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