Thursday, December 17th, 2009

The Cliche is Dead, Long Live the Cliche

Or, How to Write Copy Like a Trained Journalist – Part 1

I spent a lot of years working as a reporter. I find writing like a reporter is perfect for writing for the Web, and in most instances, can help to bring your fiction alive as well.

Journalistic writing is characterized by spare prose (“just the facts”), with the most important information at the beginning of the piece. There are other rules, usually found in a style guide (more on that in another post), which characterizes other parts of the writing.

One facet of journalistic writing is to avoid cliches.

A cliche is a phrase or an expression that has become overly familiar through use. Two cliches should be evident in the following sentence:
 

The car barreled down the road at breakneck speed.


Which of the following cliches haven’t you heard?

  • a note of warning
  • beat a hasty retreat
  • black as night
  • cool as a cucumber
  • dazed and confused
  • flood of tears
  • green as grass
  • hard as nails
  • in the nick of time
  • long-suffering
  • made ends meet
  • very much in evidence

(My original list was much longer…but it just looked silly on the page… I think you get the point.)

Cliches should never be used in a news or feature story (or fiction!), no matter how great the temptation–and temptation will beckon. (Trust me on this…it’s so much easier to write the cliche than to think up something new!)

And, there’s a reason why cliches are so popular: they’re familiar and easily understood by an audience. They bubble to the top of your thoughts when you’re considering what to write. And if you’re facing a deadline, it’s easy to rely on tired phrases to get your point across, rather than write fresh copy.

It’s much harder (not to mention more time consuming) to think up something new (especially if you’re like me. I like to dither over phrases and make them “perfect” before moving on.) But the use of cliche represents poor use of language, and in some cases, can identify the author as either inexperienced or, worse, lazy.

Appearing lazy can lose you commissions.

The problem with cliches is they make all stories sound the same:

The robbers terrorized their victims and made their escape on foot, fleeing with the loot.

So, the rule is: avoid cliches like the plague.

When writing fiction, don’t let your characters resort to cliched thought. Avoiding trite phrases will allow their personalities to develop. (And you may find that you learn more about your characters themselves if you have to work hard to make them think on their own, rather than relying on tried and true expressions to get their points across.)

When writing Web copy, keep your thoughts fresh and your words crackling. Cliches allow your reader to skim the writing, but if you use new language, your readers will actually have to think about what you write.

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