About Writing

On Writing: Words We Love Too Much

By Mike Feinsilber

Sometimes the writing comes too easily. The writer who just dashes it off taps out the first phrase that comes to mind. The result is writing that’s easy but reading that’s irksome. The concept I’m dancing around here, because it sounds so harsh, is trite. When you write a fatigued phrase, stop. Think of a fresher way to say it. Succeed and you’ll be happy. I still remember sliding onto the UPI wire a description of someone as low-faluting.

Terms wear out fast, the cleverer the faster. Remember “on steroids” to describe something that was oversized? Cute the first time, bothersome the 400th. That’s the trouble with clichés; they can turn writing into robo writing, bloodless and, ultimately, readerless.

Some clichés do say much in a hurry: “sour grapes” “Achilles heel,” “look askance,” “cherry pick,” “brain drain.” They’re clichés, maybe, but they are verbal shortcuts that say a lot in a little space. You have to judge for yourself whether the term you just wrote is fresh no more. But if you have to consider it, chances are you ought to oust it.

You are invited in the comment section below to add your own terms that grate your brain.  Here are a few of mine:
*officially and official. Smeadly made it official today. He officially became a candidate.  It’s official: the Nationals are now the best team in major league baseball. Usually official is unnecessary: what comes next in the sentence can stand by itself. Usually you can just tell us what happened.
*Most importantly. My dictionary disagrees, but turning the adjective into an adverb seems an act of pomposity. More important, what’s achieved?
*grow.  Blame Bill Clinton. He promised to “grow the economy.” Politicians can talk that way but we don’t have to.
*went south.  Cute no more and a slur to Southerners.
*poster child as in, “Smedley, having won, is a poster child for the tea party.”  The first poster child was a March of Dimes gimmick, a little girl on posters soliciting dimes for the fight against infantile paralysis. She warrants a rest.
*icon.  When poster children grow up they become icons. Lazy journalists give us more icons than the Greek Orthodox Church.
*weighing.  Meaning considering. It comes from headlines. It should be given back to grocers and boxers.
*revisit. When a politician doesn’t weigh his words he often has to revisit them.
*dramatic. Most often used about something that isn’t. Let the reader decide.
*made headlines/in the spotlight. When someone made headlines, we read about him in headlines; we don’t have to be told.
*penned/authored.  These phony verbs carry a warning: beware of verbs born of nouns.  These carry an aura of amateurism.
*posh and pricey. Vogue once, tired now.
*laundry list. You could call what you’re reading a laundry list of clichés. Or you could call it a list.
*the face of/put a human face on.  Let’s face it; most of these terms are exaggerations. We might say Bernard Madoff became the face of financial shenanigans. Or we might say just what he did.

And a word for a tireless friend. That would be “said.” Said isn’t a cliché but most of its synonyms suggest that a writer has been trying too hard. Said is neutral and that’s its value.  Said’s synonyms carry extra meaning. Declare, warn, utter, allege, mention, exclaim, aver, voice, articulate, remark, comment, assert, state (and dozens more)—none is as pure as said.  Some people, mistakenly wary of overusing  said, use “snarled” or “smiled” or other fake double-duty verbs—as in “I expect to win 106 percent of the votes,” he laughed. I never heard anyone laugh a word.

Mike Feinsilber, a former writer and editor for United Press International and the Associated Press, has been practicing journalism for 50 years and will keep practicing until he gets it right.

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