The Termites That Eat Away at Credibility

By Mike Feinsilber

Nothing, with the exception of misspellings and mistakes in grammar, undermines confidence in writing more than clichés. Lazy writer, doesn’t much care for the reader, is their message.

Take book critic Dwight Garner’s word for it. Here’s the conclusion of a New York Times review on January 30, 2015 of a book he otherwise likes, James Green’s The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom:

The Devil Is Here in These Hills is a good book that should be made better before it appears in paperback. Mr. Green and his editor need to go to war against cliché, to borrow the title of Martin Amis’s essay collection. This book has more than any I can remember, and I have a long memory for this kind of thing.

“Leaps and bounds,” “in a huff,” “howl of protest,” “feeling the heat,” “hue and cry” (twice)—I could keep going for paragraphs. These are termites that eat away at credibility as well as sensibility. This language needs to be, to borrow three phrases from Mr. Green’s book, nipped at the bud, with an iron fist, so as to work wonders.

The solution: Read what you write. Look for clichés. When you see one, think about what you are trying to say. Use that thought instead of the cliché. Sometimes that’s easy. Sometimes it’s hard. Always what you’ve written will be better. And that’s rewarding.
For 50 years, Mike Feinsilber wrote and edited for United Press International in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and for the Associated Press in Washington. After retiring, he served as the writing coach in the AP’s Washington bureau.


  1. Good advice. And while readers are at it, read other stuff by Dwight Garner (the reviewer), one of the best writers around.

  2. From The Washington Post Morning Mix, February 6:

    “Bobbi Kristina, 21, remains the shared something Houston and Brown had in common — the lasting link that tied them together even after their demons, namely drug addiction, tore them apart. And now her loved ones appear to be trapped in a holding pattern.”

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