You’ve Written a Cliché? Here’s How to Slay It.

By Mike Feinsilber

This blog is supposed to be instructively about editing and writing but it has been having too much fun.  It is spinach time—time to get serious. So let’s get serious about clichés. We all use them. And we all should feel guilty about using them. (At least in writing. In conversation, they’re just about unavoidable.)

There are some good things to be said about clichés. They save space. People instantly know what you mean when you say “a stitch in time” or “small world.” Some are just about irreplaceable: “Achilles heel,” “sour grapes,” “cherry pick.” Cliches are shorthand for more complicated thoughts. And they’re comfortable, like broken-in slippers. They set up a rapport between writer and reader, maybe.

That’s the last nice thing to say about clichés. They’re lazy. They kill freshness. They proclaim “written by a tired writer who ain’t trying hard.” They don’t give the reader reason to think about what he’s reading about.  They make the reader wonder if the writer is thinking, or just typing.

When we read clichéd writing, says his holiness William Zinsser, author of the inspirational On Writing Well, “We know just what to expect. No surprise awaits us….We are in the hands of a hack and we know it.”

What to do? If you write in clichés and think that’s fine, nothing I say here will make you stop writing clichés, but this I ask on behalf of your readers: Be aware of what you’re doing. When a term seems exactly right but you recognize it as unworthy of you, try giving it a twist that will make it fresh and make it yours.

If you find yourself writing that folks are “coming from hither and yon,” make it different: “Some are coming from hither, some from yon.” In the first paragraph of this jeremiad, I played with “eat your spinach.” I made it, “It is spinach time.” Even if the reader doesn’t know “eat your spinach” (or that famous line from the New Yorker cartoonist Carl Rose, ”I say it is spinach, and I say the hell with it”) he’ll still catch on.

Writing in the New York Times on January 6, 2013 about atheists and the belief that deep down, in a pinch, they’re not, Susan Jacoby recalled the cliché  “There are no atheists in foxholes”  and did a clever term twist: “It is vital to show that there are indeed atheists in foxholes and wherever else human beings suffer and die.”

And the Times’s Maureen Dowd, writing on July 31, 2013 about Anthony Weiner, who would be New York’s mayor despite it all, said: “Weiner continues to play the rebel without a pause.”

Here’s some advice from the immortal Zinsser: “Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this as a consolation in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.”

Not heeding Zinsser would be a zin. Get yourself a thesaurus and slay a cliché. You’ll feel good about it in the morning.

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.



  1. My kid wrote this when she was 13. See how fast we acquire a full complement of these?

    I’ve got a bone to pick with you.
    I’ll have to burn the candle at both ends to get through.
    Bite the bullet and you’ll get by.
    Giving me the cold shoulder is really rude.
    You really get under my thick skin, dude.
    So, if you don’t mind, please fly my coop.
    If you don’t, you’ll be the fifth wheel in my loop.
    Hitting below my belt was low.
    But now you’re like a scared crow.
    We never see eye to eye.
    I guess it was all just pie in the sky.
    Now, look at the pot calling the kettle black.
    To me it’s just water off a duck’s back.

  2. I have never known what “a stitch in time” means. I have not heard that expression used for at least 60 years. And I’m only 50.

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